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NN09 Panel: How to Waste a Crisis

One of the last NN09 panels today featured Digby, Ian Welsh, Mike Lux, Rep. Eric Massa, with Jay Ackroyd chairing.

The panel’s theme was framed around the idea of a reverse "shock doctrine" in which progressives would seize the opportunity of following George Bush and move aggressively to implement a progressive agenda. What happened?

Mike Lux recalled other transformational moments in US history that followed massive shocks to the system; in this view, the New Deal was a great progressive period built on economic collapse. Another moment followed President Kennedy’s assassination, in which Johnson pushed through the Civil Rights Act, Medicaid and other progressive milestones.

So was Obama’s election such a moment, and if so, are we using this moment well or have we already blown it? In Marcy Wheeler’s ealier panel on torture, the answer was already a resounding no. In another panel on the absence of an industrial policy, the answer was also no, and a panel on the climate change bill wasn’t more positive. So it seems to me this was a major theme throughout the NN09 conference, and the verdict was at best split but more probably very negative.

The optimists are President Bill Clinton, Gov. Howard Dean (speaking last night) and Valerie Jarrett (this morning). Like Clinton, Dean is convinced that "we’re winnning" on health reform, and the evidence is the level of discourse used by the other side. When all they’ve got is phony euthanasia scare stories, he assured us, they’ve bet their future on a strategy that is more likely to discredit and doom them to 40 years in the wilderness.

Of course, that optimistic view depends on the assumption that the death panel lie is as low as the right wing will go to discredit the President and any progressive agenda (which are not the same). I wish I believed that, but what evidence do we have that there is a lower limit?

As Digby noted later, as long as we have a complicit media, unwilling to call out and condemn outrageous behavior by the right wing, there’s no reason to assume things can’t get worse, and possibly more violent. And you have to wonder when the right thinks the prudent thing to do is buy as much ammunition for your assault rifle as you can, while the left is writing blogs on how to organize better lobbying in Congress.

Jarrett’s loyalty to Obama personally and politically was enough for her, and she’s the perfect ambassador for the Administration — perfect for most audiences but probably not this one. Although many still want to believe in Obama’s message of hope, many more seem openly skeptical that this White House is really serious about "using the crisis" effectively to pursue a progressive agenda.

Ian did a fine job illustrating how the Administration had failed to seize the financial crisis and the necessity of saving the economy as an opportunity to downsize and reregulate the banking system. Massa added the concerns about how the health care debate has already been hijacked and at best is now badly compromised from where it needs to be. His view of the public option is decidedly more negative than Dean’s.

Given how bogged down the agenda seems, the panel’s audience was left wondering whether there really was a crisis moment to seize, given how the limits have been defined. I think there was.

If the "shock" was 8 years of outrageous government behavior, then the opportunity was there for a new Administration to restore the legitimacy and efficacy of government, both as a corrective agent for overturning and prosecuting the outrages and as the necessary counterweight against the defenders of the previous regime and its powerful corporate beneficiaries.

Digby said perhaps we weren’t ready, that when the right moment arrived, we needed to be better prepared with what we wanted to happen. But I think progressives were ready for the most part.

As I’ve argued with Ian, the stimulus and budget bills weren’t ad hoc measures; they contained extensive, well thought out laundry lists of dozens of things that needed money that had been neglected and which pointed in a different direction. Those became the basis for those bills.

And there wasn’t any question about what needed to happen in revitalizing the regulatory system in every industry. Nor were there any doubts that we needed to overturn virtually every DoJ "terror" ruling of the last seven years, end the practices and bring the law breakers to justice.

So we had the shock, it created an opportunity, we knew what needed to be done, we won the elections and progressives were ready. But in every one of these cases, the effort was cut off at the knees by a White House that was either too cautious, too unwilling to fight, or really didn’t believe in what needed to be done.

I’m left with wondering about Rahm Emanuel. When he said, "a crisis is a terrible thing to waste," was he just putting us on? Or was he serious but the teams of Bush holdovers and corporate lobbyists too compromised or incompetent? Did he simply underestimate the viciousness of the right? I didn’t hear any answers, but I don’t think they’d speak well for the team of rivals.

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John has been writing for Firedoglake since 2006 or so, on whatever interests him. He has a law degree, worked as legal counsel and energy policy adviser for a state energy agency for 20 years and then as a consultant on electricity systems and markets. He's now retired, living in Massachusetts.

You can follow John on twitter: @JohnChandley