The more-of-the-same debate

October 3, 2012

There are differences between Democrats and Republicans--but there are also large areas of agreement and common purpose that are ignored at election time.

BARACK OBAMA and Mitt Romney will meet on Wednesday night for their first debate of the presidential campaign.

As always, the mainstream media is covering the event like a sports competition--obsessively focused on spotting when the candidates "score points" or "fumble," picking a winner and a loser, ferreting out any last-minute "change in the lineup" of talking points, analyzing the minutiae of debating techniques and tactics, speculating if anything is a "game changer" in the overall campaign season.

You'll find much less in the media about the substance of the political issues discussed in the debate--and absolutely no reference at all to any views outside the narrow limits of Washington politics, defined by the Democrats on the left and the Republicans on the right.

Above all, everything you read and watch from the media establishment will emphasize the differences between the two candidates and their parties. The highest priority of the two campaigns is to show what distinguishes their man, and the media follow suit, treating Romney and Obama as polar opposites in every respect--like the star players on bitter division rivals.

The more-of-the-same presidential debates

In so many ways, however, the debate in Denver will be more of the same.

In terms of what the candidates say, it will be more of the same sound bites and focus-grouped messaging--just packaged for a different format from campaign speeches or television ads. There's a chance that Romney, in particular, will do something unexpected in the hopes of reversing his slide in the polls. But in general, both campaigns have devoted hours and hours to preparing their candidates to avoid any deviation from the established script.

On another level, in terms of what the candidates don't say, this debate--like the election as a whole--will also be about more of the same.

Since both campaigns and both parties emphasize only what makes Obama and Romney different from each other--and thus why one should get your vote and not the other--the larger areas of agreement and common purpose among Democrats and Republicans stay hidden.

This is the real story of the presidential debate: Though you'd never know it from what gets said in Denver on Wednesday night, Obama and Romney stand for the same basic agenda--maintaining the economic and military dominance of the U.S. around the world, imposing austerity policies at home, keeping big business profitable, stopping any political alternatives that might disrupt the two-party status quo. Their differences are over the details.

IF YOU think that's untrue or an exaggeration, then ask yourself a question: Can you honestly say that you expected four years of Barack Obama to be so similar to the eight years of George Bush that came before?

Count up the examples--the Wall Street bailout engineered by the Bush administration and adapted wholesale by the Obama White House; neoliberal social policies like the drive for privatization and corporate deform in public schools; a continuation of the "war on terror" based on a redeployment of Pentagon resources; the war on civil liberties and the strengthening of the state's repressive apparatus.

This isn't to say that the two parties and the two candidates are alike. On a woman's right to choose abortion or marriage equality, for example, most Democrats disagree with the Republican bigots--though it should also be said that even on these questions, Obama and the Democrats have made so many concessions that they are closer to the Republicans than to the mass of their party's supporters.

Thus, Obama waited until this year--tellingly, after the election season was underway--to say that he now believed same-sex couples should be able to marry. And even so, he didn't say he would do anything about it until after November at least, and he couched his statement in a conservative argument about states' rights.

On other issues, candidates of the two parties sound different in their rhetoric, but this masks the Democrats' commitment to the same program as Republicans--or at best, a less extreme version of it.

For example, one of the biggest reasons for the Republican presidential ticket floundering in the past several months is that more and more people recognize a Romney administration would slash Social Security and Medicare, the two most popular government programs.

Voters think this because it's true--something Romney helpfully confirmed by choosing Paul Ryan as his running mate. Ryan is more closely associated than any other Republican with proposals to privatize Social Security and turn Medicare into a voucher system.

But voters also appear to believe Obama's claim that he will defend Social Security and Medicare from Republican attacks--and that's not true. Obama offered historic cuts in these "entitlement" programs as part of the "grand bargain" he proposed during the debt ceiling debate in 2011. The outlines of his future plans are clear in the recommendations of the deficit reduction commission he formed, which call for trillions of dollars in spending reductions.

Even before the "grand bargain," Obama slashed Medicare--to the tune of $700 billion in future spending cuts--as part of his health care law, which the White House and its liberal supporters celebrate as the central accomplishment of Obama's time in office.

Republicans started the 2012 campaign figuring that they could count on a huge advantage among angry senior voters because of Obama's Medicare cuts. The fact that this hasn't played out is the result of a public relations failure on their part--and the Democrats' p.r. success--not a substantial difference in policies.

SO ON some issues, the difference between Republicans and Democrats is mainly rhetorical or stylistic. And then there are other questions where there truly is no difference at all.

The inspiring struggle of Chicago teachers last month cast a spotlight on this last category. Here was a union fighting for its survival, and the enemies who wanted to kill it were part of a Democratic Party machine in one of the most firmly "blue states" in the country, and in Barack Obama's hometown to boot.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel is no freak exception among Democrats. He's the former chief of staff for Obama himself and one of the most powerful figures in the party.

Before he took over as mayor, he got his allies among Democratic state legislators to pass a law placing drastic restrictions on the teachers' right to strike. When that didn't work, he could count on his tame minions on the all-Democratic City Council to join him in slandering the teachers and their union. As for the propaganda campaign of anti-teacher commercials, running constantly during the strike and even afterward, the money came from a political action committee called Democrats for Education Reform.

Support for Emanuel rolled in from some embarrassing quarters. Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan declared that they stood with Obama's former top adviser. "Mayor Emanuel is right today in saying that this teachers' union strike is unnecessary and wrong," said Ryan. "We know that Rahm is not going to support our campaign, but on this issue and this day, we stand with Mayor Rahm Emanuel."

If more evidence of the common Republocratic attitude about Chicago was needed, it was provided in a Washington Post op-ed article by Michelle Rhee, the former union-busting schools chancellor of Washington, D.C., and outspoken champion of--besides herself--corporate school deform. Rhee praised Emanuel for going "head to head with the union," denounced the CTU for a strike that "was never about what was best for kids" and claimed that the attitude of Chicago Democrats "underscored a transformation" in the party as a whole toward embracing the deform agenda.

Ryan's and Rhee's words help show that the Obama administration's public neutrality about the Chicago teachers' strike cloaked its role in driving through privatization and anti-teacher measures. Emanuel was right on one point during the strike--when he insisted that the city's demands for historic concessions from the CTU were modeled on the Obama administration's Race to the Top education law that promotes charter schools, merit pay for teachers and the standardized testing frenzy.

On the issue of schools, the Democrats can't even be described as the "lesser evil." They are leading the way on corporate school deform--and accomplishing what the Republicans' conservative ideologues once only dreamed about.

THE SOCIALIST case isn't that there are no differences between Democrats and Republicans, but that, when judged from outside the narrow limits of what's acceptable in mainstream politics, they share a lot more in common than either party ever admits.

Equally important to this case is a lesson from history--that the most important changes in society have come about not because of the differences between figures or parties within the political establishment, but because ordinary people refused to accept the limits of conventional mainstream politics and organized political protest and struggle that changed the status quo.

This lesson obviously applies to today. For example, it was far more important for anyone who wants to see education justice to be active in building support and solidarity for the Chicago teachers than to be active in promoting Barack Obama's presidential campaign.

The net impact of four years of Obama has been to accelerate the drive for privatization and anti-teacher scapegoating in cities and towns around the country. The impact of nine days of teachers on the picket line in Chicago was to focus national attention on an alternative vision for public schools--and, it seems, to spark a small wave of militancy and strikes in Chicago-area schools and perhaps beyond.

Similarly, if Romney and the Republicans are getting less of a hearing for their bashing of "big government"--the chief ideological justification for austerity and cutbacks--than during the Tea Party-dominated midterm elections in 2010, it's not because of Obama's recent turn to populist rhetoric. Far more important in changing the political climate was the rise of the Occupy Wall Street movement last year, which gave voice to the bitterness of millions of people at the greed and corruption of Corporate America and the U.S. political system.

Even on the issues where the Democrats stand out from the Republicans, the Democrats don't deserve the credit they get. For example, the Obama administration has been forced to move--too slowly--in the direction of LGBT rights because masses of people refused to wait on the White House, but organized protest and grassroots organization to demand action, starting on Election Night in 2008.

Millions of people will vote Democratic on Election Day in November, not because they expect Obama to accomplish a lot in a second term, but because they're disgusted by Republicans like Romney and want to stop them. It seems like common sense to support the party that stands to the left of the Republicans, however slightly and inconsistently.

But it's important to remember that the distance between the Democrats on the left and the Republicans on the right today is not nearly so large as the distance that both mainstream parties together shift to the right or the left--depending, above all, on the pressure of struggle from below.

It follows, therefore, that the most important thing people dedicated to pushing politics leftward can do is build that struggle from below--and resist the calls to collapse it or tailor it to the electoral requirements of the "lesser evil."

As the historian Howard Zinn put it in an interview with Socialist Worker right after George W. Bush took office in 2001:

There's hardly anything more important that people can learn than the fact that the really critical thing isn't who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in--in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating--those are the things that determine what happens.

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