Preferring Obama to Paul: What Does It Say About Progressive Priorities?

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That surprisingly fraught question has kicked off one of the most provocative conversations in American politics.

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In an unsparing essay published on New Year's Eve, Glenn Greenwald attempted to tease out exactly what progressives are saying when they support Obama's reelection -- as most of them do -- and oppose the candidacy of Ron Paul, who agrees with them on some key issues.

"Progressives like to think of themselves as the faction that stands for peace, opposes wars, believes in due process and civil liberties, distrusts the military-industrial complex, and supports candidates who are devoted to individual rights, transparency, and economic equality," Greenwald writes. But "the leader progressives have empowered and will empower again has worked in direct opposition to those values and engaged in conduct that is nothing short of horrific. So there is an eagerness to avoid hearing about them, to pretend they don't exist. And there's a corresponding hostility toward those who... insist that they not be ignored."

Where does Paul fit in?

The parallel reality -- the undeniable fact -- is that all of these listed heinous views and actions from Barack Obama have been vehemently opposed and condemned by Ron Paul: and among the major GOP candidates, only by Ron Paul. For that reason, Paul's candidacy forces progressives to face the hideous positions and actions of their candidate, of the person they want to empower for another four years. If Paul were not in the race or were not receiving attention, none of these issues would receive any attention because all the other major GOP candidates either agree with Obama on these matters or hold even worse views.

...Paul scrambles the comfortable ideological and partisan categories and forces progressives to confront and account for the policies they are working to protect. His nomination would mean that it is the Republican candidate -- not the Democrat -- who would be the anti-war, pro-due-process, pro-transparency, anti-Fed, anti-Wall-Street-bailout, anti-Drug-War advocate (emphasis in original).

As Greenwald acknowledges, there are all sorts of other issues where progressives prefer Obama, and deciding that he is the lesser of two evils is a reasonable position. Then comes the provocative part. Says Greenwald, "An honest line of reasoning in this regard would go as follows:

Yes, I'm willing to continue to have Muslim children slaughtered by covert drones and cluster bombs, and America's minorities imprisoned by the hundreds of thousands for no good reason, and the CIA able to run rampant with no checks or transparency, and privacy eroded further by the unchecked Surveillance State, and American citizens targeted by the President for assassination with no due process, and whistleblowers threatened with life imprisonment for "espionage," and the Fed able to dole out trillions to bankers in secret, and a substantially higher risk of war with Iran (fought by the U.S. or by Israel with U.S. support) in exchange for less severe cuts to Social Security, Medicare and other entitlement programs, the preservation of the Education and Energy Departments, more stringent environmental regulations, broader health care coverage, defense of reproductive rights for women, stronger enforcement of civil rights for America's minorities, a President with no associations with racist views in a newsletter, and a more progressive Supreme Court."

Is that a fair statement of the tradeoffs progressives are making? Dan Drezner doesn't think so.

Referring to Paul, he writes:

I don't think his intriguing take on foreign policy and civil liberties can be separated from, say, his batshit-insane views about the Federal Reserve. In fact, let me just edit Greenwald's proposed tradeoff so that it's a bit more accurate:

Yes, I'm willing to continue to have some Muslim children inadvertently die by covert drones and cluster bombs, and a disproportionate percentage of America's minorities imprisoned for no good reason, and the CIA taking action with minimal checks or transparency, and privacy eroded further by the unchecked Surveillance State, and American citizens targeted by the President for assassination with no due process, and whistleblowers threatened with life imprisonment for "espionage," and the Fed able to dole out trillions to bankers and lots of rhetoric & covert action against Iran that makes Glenn Greenwald hyperventilate in exchange for avoiding a complete and total meltdown of the global economy due to the massive deflation that would naturally follow from a re-constituted gold standard. 

I don't like this choice, but it's an easy one to make.     

By way of mediating between Greenwald and Drezner, I'll say only that Greenwald sketches out policies that Paul would have a good chance of meaningfully impacting as president, and areas where he would most likely disappoint progressives in some real way; whereas Drezner takes one of Paul's most extreme ideas -- returning to the gold standard -- and writes as if there is a real chance that we'd in fact take that course if Paul were improbably elected president. I'd say the odds of a President Paul persuading Congress to return to the gold standard is nil, which isn't to say that there aren't other things Paul would do badly, just that the gold standard is a mistaken focus if what we're trying to do is tease out the actual tradeoffs that we face.

Drezner is still to be applauded for going through the exercise, as are Glenn Loury and John McWhorter and also Andrew Sullivan, who writes:

A principled belief in states' rights will doubtless lead to more racist and homophobic policies in many states -- but also, of course, more enlightened and successful inclusive states like Oregon or New York or Massachusetts or California. A rejection of statism might lead to more discrimination in the private sector. But it doesn't mandate it. And it need not encourage it. A non-interventionist foreign policy will allow evil to triumph elsewhere in the world, because it believes it's none of our business or too riddled with unintended consequences to try extirpating. That may be right or wrong, but it is not an approval of the evil of Assad or Ahmedinejad or the North Korean junta. And again, it is actually much deeper an American tradition than permanent warfare. 

In his own column-length attempt to grapple with Paul's candidacy, Ross Douthat of The New York Times says this:

The United States is living through an era of unprecedented elite failure, in which America's public institutions are understandably distrusted and our leadership class is justifiably despised. Yet politicians of both parties are required, by the demands of partisanship, to embrace the convenient lie that our problem can be pinned exclusively on the other side's elites -- as though both liberals and conservatives hadn't participated in the decisions that dug our current hole.

In both the 2008 and 2012 campaigns, Paul has been the only figure willing to point out the deep continuities in American politics -- the way social spending grows and overseas commitments multiply no matter which party is in power, the revolving doors that connect K Street to Congress and Wall Street to the White House, the long list of dubious policies and programs that both sides tacitly support. In both election cycles, his honest extremism has sometimes cut closer to the heart of our national predicament than the calculating partisanship of his more grounded rivals.

It's heartening to see writers of various ideologies and temperaments grappling with the fraught choices before us in 2012, rather than picking a champion, joining the political tribe that touts his good qualities, and demonizing his opponents. Whether you think Greenwald or Drezner is right about the tradeoff progressives are making -- or if you'd rewrite things in your own words -- confronting the ugliest positions of the candidates we back is much preferable to hiding from ourselves the choices before us.

Unpleasant as it is to do so, the exercise is useful in this way: it stokes a desire for -- it reveals a moral imperative to work towards -- a politics that affords us better tradeoffs in the future.

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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