Kevin Drum, over at Mother Jones blogged about President Obama’s news conference, with the great title of “Obama Goes Medieval on the Left.” In general, not bad in his analysis, except towards the end when it came to his point number four:
(4) Looking at American politics from a 100,000-foot level, conservatives have won. Programmatic liberalism is essentially dead for a good long time, and small bore stuff is probably the best we can hope for over the next 10-20 years — though social liberalism will continue to make steady advances.
What he’s bemoaning is that we’re unlikely to see big, huge, sweeping legislative changes instituting major liberal programs. Which he gets all misty-eyed about looking back at the 60’s and 30’s. Which of course means that he’s looking at the mythology, not the reality of it. What President Obama pointed out in his news conference – and it was really a great history seminar for the reporters – is that the vast majority of those “great liberal programs” started off as “small bore stuff.”
No, seriously. During the health care reform debates, I did some looks back at those programs for (now gone) diaries over at Daily Kos. You know what? If you look at the actual legislative history behind them, it turns out that the original groundwork was laid well in advance, and the original legislation was signally weak and compromised. Social Security didn’t cover a lot of people when it passed The Clean Air Act – the original one – was a very weak piece of legislation that didn’t really regulate or enforce anything. The first Civil Rights Act in this century was a very weak one that didn’t really do anything. They were weak, not very effective, contained legislative compromises designed to weaken and limit them, and generally not liked by the Left. By the purist Left’s standards, they should have been strangled in their crib.
That’s the problem with the purists. They look at “now” and think that it sprang in that form from Congress when it was first passed. “Oh, the great thing that Congress (or President) did! Why can’t this Congress do it? They must lack spine!” The reality of course is far different. It took years – decades – for those programs to develop and be strengthened. The original ones were hated by the purists of the Left at the time.
It’s also why the purists hate the pragmatic liberals. The original “progressives,” although the purists have been hijacking that term. We recognize that reality, we know the real history, and we’re in it for the long run. We sweat the “small bore” stuff. 10-20 years of it? You see a lot of good things happening. The purists want it all, and they want it now. Great, but it isn’t going to happen. All or nothing usually means nothing.