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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."



The other night, David Letterman voiced a sentiment that I – and doubtless millions of others – had been feeling ever since last Sunday “The best thing to be said for Hurricane Sandy is that he/she/it has blasted the election campaign off of the front pages.” For once, we could all be grateful for the saturation coverage that TV, radio, online & print media were devoting to the weather. Not that I – and so many others – don’t take an interest in the campaign, but it’s been going on for at least two years now, counting how the Republicans started to take aim at Obama even before they had won control of the House of Representatives in November 2010.


The opening gun in this campaign seems to have been fired by Mitch McConnell, minority leader in the Senate, announcing in an interview in the National Journal for October 23, 2010, that “the single most important thing that we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” In the same interview, McConnell indicated that if the President were willing to “meet us halfway,” the Republicans would be prepared to cooperate with him---but since their agenda included (and includes) repealing Obamacare, to say nothing of their other plans for hamstringing the federal government’s support for the very young, the very old, and the less fortunate members of our society, it’s hard to see how he could ever have satisfied their supposed expectations and persuaded them to call off their dogs.

It’s true that the Democrats have made hay with this statement by McConnell (which he subsequently repeated--with slightly different wording---in at least one televised interview currently on You Tube). It’s also true that they’ve claimed the statement was made nearer the beginning of Obama’s term in office than actually seems to have been the case. However, that doesn’t make their claim that McConnell said it a lie, as the Republicans have suggested. And this kind of back-and-forth sniping has been going on ever since, accompanied by the prolonged spectacle of the various and sometimes almost laughable candidates vying for the Republican presidential nomination in a seemingly endless succession of primaries. (Laughable, that is to say, were it not for the horrifying possibility that one of those clowns might even have become president.)

At this point, I see little point in rehashing the whole aggravating sequence of events, the ups & downs in the polls after the two parties’ conventions, or the televised debates. What I found, and continue to find, rather aggravating, is a certain lack of understanding of Obama’s situation among some of his more progressive supporters, and their corresponding lack of enthusiasm for his candidacy now.

True, Moveon.org, the progressive online lobbying group, has finally thrown itself full force into the campaign. After developing various strategies and raising moneys from its members for campaign advertising, it is now recruiting folks to go to the “swing states” and get out the vote. This, it seems, is particularly necessary because, although Obama enjoys a substantial majority among all registered voters, his majority shrinks drastically when only “likely voters” are counted.


The New York Times editorial writers also seem to have put their backs into boosting the President. Over the past three months, they have run editorials pointing out

1) how unsympathetic to the health and welfare of women are the Republicans in Congress (July 30);

2) how groups like “True the Vote” are doing what they can to harass and intimidate prospective Democratic voters (September 22);

3) how Republicans engage in conspiracy theories to explain away facts that they don’t like to deal with, from the fact that Barack Obama was born in the US to the latest statistics on unemployment and not excluding polls that don’t show the Republicans in the lead (October 10);

4) how “Moderate Mitt,” voicing less conservative views in the later stages of the campaign, on everything from abortion to health care to his proposed $5 trillion tax cut, is a myth, brought into being in order to lure moderate voters (October 13);

5) what would happen if Roe v. Wade were struck down--as seems likely, if Romney is elected & nominates a Supreme Court justice committed to that position (October 16);

6) how Romney’s claims that he can lower tax rates and make up the difference by plugging loopholes in the tax code just don’t add up (October 16);

7) how the Republicans are either vague about their plans for health care, or trying to make it appear as though they wouldn’t be doing any damage with their plans to repeal and then “replace” Obamacare, turn Medicare into a voucher program and turn Medicaid into block grants for the states. (October 22).

8) how the budget-slashing “austerity” promised by the Republicans won’t work any better in the US than it has in Europe, where the latest statistics show that that the countries which have most ruthlessly cut their budgets—Greece, especially—have seen their overall debt loads actually increase as a share of their economies (October 24);

9) how a Republican-sponsored consulting firm has been charged with registering (to vote) dead people & altering & faking other registrations (October 26);

10) how the economy is making slow but steady progress, which would more likely continue under Obama’s plans to support federal spending for more jobs and pay for it by letting the Bush-era tax cuts on the top 2 percent of households, and less likely to improve with Romney’s plans to cut federal taxes, which would worsen the deficit, & cut spending, which would delay further improvement (October 27);

11) that a big storm (like Sandy) needs big government to help its victims recover, & that Romney, in the past, has said that disaster coordination should be turned back to the states, and if possible, to private enterprise (even though, in the wake of Sandy, he refused to make any statement, and his campaign managers were busy backtracking on his earlier one (October 30); and

12) how the Romney campaign was continuing to broadcast campaign ads saying that Detroit’s automakers were outsourcing car manufacture to China, even though the automakers themselves hotly denied this (November 1).


Not content with all of this, the paper on Sunday, October 28, announced its choice of Obama for president. Nobody who had been reading all these other editorials could have been in any doubt as to whom the paper would endorse, but its page-long editorial summed up all the different issues and presented its most comprehensive case for re-election. In addition to other points it had previously made, it argued that

1)Although Obama has shown a “strong commitment” to using government to foster growth, he has also “formed sensible budget policies that are not dedicated to protecting the powerful, and has worked to save the social safety net to protect the powerless.“ Mitt Romney “has gotten this far with a guile that allows him to say whatever he thinks an audience wants to hear. But he has tied himself to the ultraconservative forces that control the Republican Party and embraced their policies including reckless budget cuts and 30-year-old, discredited trickle-down ideas. Voters may still be confused about Mr. Romney’s true identity, but they know the Republican Party, and a Romney administration would reflect its agenda. Mr. Romney’s choice of Representative Paul Ryan as his running mate says volumes about that.”

2)Obama’s many important achievements include “carrying out the economic stimulus, improving fuel efficiency standards, and making two very fine Supreme Court appointments....He would appoint justices and judges who understand that landmarks of equality like the Voting Rights Act must be defended against the steady attack from the right. Mr. Romney’s campaign website says he will ‘nominate judges in the mold of Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito,’ among the most conservative justices in the past 75 years. There is no doubt that he would appoint justices who would seek to overturn Roe v. Wade.”

3)Obama has achieved the “most sweeping health care reforms since the passage of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965.” Republicans are “determined now to repeal the law…Mr. Romney has no plan for covering the uninsured beyond his callous assumption that they will use the emergency rooms..”

4)“Contrary to Mr. Romney’s claims, Mr. Obama has done good things for small businesses—like pushing through more tax write-offs for new equipment and temporary tax cuts for hiring the unemployed.”

5)"The Dodd-Frank financial regulation was an important milestone," even if it is still only a work-in-progress…"Mr.Romney wants to repeal it.”

6)“Mr. Obama has not been as aggressive as we would have liked in addressing the housing crisis, but he has increased efforts in refinancing and loan modification.”

7)In the area of foreign policy, “Mr. Obama and his administration have been resolute in attacking Al Qaeda’s leadership, including the killing of Osama bin Laden. He has ended the war in Iraq. Mr. Romney, however, has said he would have insisted on leaving thousands of American soldiers there. He has surrounded himself with Bush administration neocons who helped to engineer the Iraq war, and adopted their militaristic talk in a way that makes a Romney administration’s foreign policy a frightening prospect….Mr. Obama negotiated a much tougher regime of multilateral economic sanctions on Iran. Mr. Romney likes to say the president was ineffective on Iran, but in the final debate he agreed with Mr. Obama’s policies….Mr. Obama gathered international backing for air strikes during the Libyan uprising, and kept American military forces in a background role. It was smart policy. In the broadest terms, he introduced a measure of military restraint after the Bush years and helped repair America’s badly damaged reputation in many countries from the low levels to which it had sunk by 2008.”

8)In the area of civil rights, “Mr. Obama…has reversed Bush administration policies that chipped away at minorities’ voting rights and has fought laws, like the ones in Arizona, that seek to turn undocumented aliens into a class of criminals. The military’s odious ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ rule was finally legislated out of existence, under the Obama administration’s leadership….Though it took Mr. Obama some time to do it, he overcame his hesitation about same-sex marriage and declared his support….. Mr. Romney opposed same-sex marriage…He says he is not opposed to contraception, but he has promised to deny federal money to Planned Parenthood, on which millions of women depend for family planning.

“For these and many other reasons, we enthusiastically endorse President Barack Obama for a second term, and express the hope that his victory will be accompanied by a new Congress willing to work for policies that Americans need.”


This is a very impressive record, especially when you consider that during the past 2 years, the Republicans in Congress – true to Mitch McConnell’s stated ambition—did everything they could to stymie Obama’s ambitions. So why aren’t the polls showing double-digit preferences for Obama, instead of the sorry fact that he and Romney appear to be at a virtual tie among likely voters? That, in a nutshell, is the reason I’ve chosen this photograph to illustrate this story—President Obama is clearly not happy with the current situation. True, these statistics only reflect the popular vote, and some of the odds-makers on the Times (and elsewhere) are saying that Obama’s advantage in the Electoral College is more favorable, but even that looks chancy, when voters’ preferences in the “swing states” are just as neck-and-neck as the national statistics.

The biggest consolation seems to be that, according to a story by David Leonhardt posted at the Times website on November 1, the polls that most reliably predict the final outcome seem to be those that ask not “Who are you going to vote for?” but instead “Who do you think will win?” Once this question is asked, Obama is the clear favorite, and you know, I cling to this feeling in my bones that he will win, too, even though every time I see a news story that suggests that happy outcome to the election, I find myself writing on it, “From your lips to God’s ears,” my own little prayer. I like to think that Obama will win, but it can come to pass only if all the bullies descending upon polling stations where voters are most likely to vote for an opposition party can be kept at bay, and the legions of lawyers likewise descending on those polling places to challenge their tallies can likewise cancel each other out. Also, of course, if enough people get to the polls and cast their ballots for him--that's the most essential thing of all.

Politics has always been an ugly business in US history. In the 19th century, it was often openly corrupt, but this election looks to be uglier than most in the 20th century. Maybe Ohio, which everybody seems to think is the most important swing state, will be as ugly as Florida was in 2000—when, if ALL the disputed votes had been re-counted, and not just those in districts that Gore was challenging, he would have won, nor only the state, but also the presidency—this, according to a $1 million study made in 2001 by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago at the request of a consortium of 8 news-gathering organizations: the Associated Press, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, CNN, St. Petersburg Times, Palm Beach Post, Washington Post, and Tribune Company (whose holdings include the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Orlando Sentinel, and Baltimore Sun).


When a race is this close, it stirs up heated emotions, and position statements that tend toward the extreme. In this election, we have the extremists to the right, and the extremists to the left—both of which pose problems for Obama. Not that their pronouncements are especially prominent, except in forums where friends listen patiently (or impatiently) to other people’s friends sounding off—on Facebook, for example. On most of the TV networks, and in the hard-copy media, cooler heads are apt to prevail – though their fundamental positions may not differ all that much from the hotheads in the blogosphere, they at least present a façade of sweet reason.


What do these extremists say? Well, I can’t speak for all of them, but judging from what I see online, the extremists of the right are passionately committed to 19th century capitalism—which, they repeat like a mantra, can be relied upon to ensure that all of society’s needs will be met,. These conservatives – and particularly those neocons who, back in the 60s and 70s, embraced left-wing causes with the same religious fervor that they now devote to the causes of the right—are just as mystical about the powers of the free market as they ever were about “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” The neocons would do away with most if not all government regulation of business, most if not all progressive income taxes, and most if not all of the many ways in which the federal government cushions the blows of ill fortune upon the unemployed, children from uneducated & impecunious families, the ailing, the elderly, and so on.

Boiled down from its fancy rationalizations, the neo-con argument is simply this: all these governmental trappings prevent the economy from functioning at peak efficiency, and I would agree that, back in the unregulated 19th century, the US economy grew faster than it does now. However, it also had virtually unlimited and cheap natural resources, as well as a steady stream of easily-exploited immigrants to fulfill its labor needs, and it accomplished its growth at the cost of old people becoming sick and/or destitute, children frozen and starving, millions of families forced to live in slums & millions of bread-winners out of work when stocks crashed – as they did regularly, and disastrously.

These enervating boom & bust cycles continued throughout the 19th century and on into the 20th—when the US electorate finally decided that the cost of unfettered growth was too high in terms of human suffering, and ushered in what is now contemptuously referred to as “the welfare state” (although Eduardo Porter, in the Times for October 31, recently detailed the ways that by comparison with other developed nations, the US is still not fully evolved beyond Darwinian capitalism of “nature red in tooth and claw,” with income inequality the most acute of any industrialized country, more American children dying before reaching age 19 than in any other rich country in the O.E.C.D., more living in poverty, and many more obese. Public spending on early childhood in the US is the most meager among advanced nations. Our 15-year-olds place 26th out of 38 countries on international tests of mathematical literacy…and so on, through the inequities of our medical system and unemployment provisions—all by comparison with other developed countries).

What nobody on the right seems willing to admit is that even such government spending as we do have for unemployment insurance and Social Security has cushioned the blows of the stock market, and kept recessions since World War II far milder and less destructive than the series of crashes that ultimately led to the Great Depression of the 1930s. Why? Because, no matter how many people were out of work, they still had enough money to eat and buy basic necessities, and, by do doing, are able to keep the wheels of commerce and industry turning, albeit more slowly than in times of boom.

At present, we have a House of Representatives dominated by Republicans who apparently want to slash money going to the safety net, and return the US economy back to at least its pre-1929 status. So those extremists of the right have sympathizers in high office, and, by zealous campaigning, can hope to extend their policies to the Senate (where the Democrats currently have only a 1-vote majority), and even to the presidency. Of course, these people never would have voted for Barack Obama in a million years. Probably not even if he were a white man, though the zeal with which so many of them continue to believe that he wasn’t born in the US strikes me as subliminal racism—especially since Romney continues to boast that he is a true American, thereby implying Obama is not.

There was also the feeble attempt, on the part of the right-wing media, to revive the charge that Obama was still a follower of the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, the black nationalist pastor whom he admittedly praised in an address in 2007. After all, as Charles M. Blow, the statistician on the Times’s Op-Ed page reported on October 27, 59 percent of white Americans support Romney, including 65 percent of the white men and 53 percent of white women, while 79 percent of nonwhites support Obama, including 95 percent of the blacks, and 75 percent of Hispanics (this was according to a poll of likely voters conducted on behalf of ABC News & the Washington Post).


What I find more vastly more troubling (and I would imagine the president does too) are the extremists on the left, who in my book can sound just as irrational as those on the right. The neocons who were flower children back in the 60s and 70s looked then for a left-wing savior (often, though not always, with a Marxist orientaton); when that light failed, they reacted back in the opposite direction to express a right-wing cynicism about the dangers of letting “politicians” run the government that matches any such similar cynicism on the left. But the extremists on today’s left also seem to have been looking for some sort of messianic leader, and thought they’d found one in Obama in 2008. They applauded his pie-in-the-sky campaign promises, and actually seem to have believed these promises would all be realized when he was elected – despite a spiraling depression and a huge federal deficit, both inherited from George W. Bush, but needing to be dealt with before any major spending initiatives could be undertaken. Obama’s leftwing fans took the huge Democratic majority in Congress as proof that the country wanted everything that Obama offering.

I don’t buy that, and I never have. All of my research (going back to the year 2000) suggested (and continues to suggest) that the country’s electorate – with militant young blue-collar workers no longer a significant factor -- was (and is) moving in a rightward direction. I attributed Obama’s victory in 2008 to sheer panic, on the part of older white working-class voters especially, who were so upset by the way that the stock market had plunged and the bottom fallen out of the housing market that they voted for a black man out of desperation. They also voted for Democratic moderates in Congress at least as often as they voted for liberals, but the extremists who looked upon Obama as the Second Coming didn’t stop to consider what Obama’s majority in Congress actually consisted of: they just blithely assumed that all these Democratic senators and representatives were as gung-ho to go riding off into the left as they themselves were—and that all the electorate felt the same way.

Obama didn’t believe this—or more likely was forced into realizing it when he tried to enact the kind of legislation that he had promised. Bit by bit, he had to compromise and whittle down his ambitions. He got a stimulus bill – but not as big as the one whom his leftist “friends” said was necessary. He got Affordable Care – but without a single-payer program—which again his leftist “friends” castigated him for. He got enhanced regulation of the financial markets –- but not nearly as strict a bill as he and his left-wing “friends” had wanted. And, although he did end the war in Iraq, and has acted with very impressive restraint regarding the Arab Spring, he escalated the war in Afghanistan, nor were his directives regarding Homeland Security or the treatment of terrorist prisoners anything that a good progressive could praise him for.

All of these measures were, in my opinion, the best he could have done under the circumstances (including the foreign policy decisions – any president with “Hussein” for a middle name has to bend over backward to escape charges that he’s “soft” on terrorism) And – as far as I’m concerned -- he is now a sadder but a wiser man, having learned from this experience, and ready to do battle in the next four years from a more knowledgeable position. His leftwing “friends” don’t seem to have learned along with him. With them, it is once again “the light that failed,” and they are hurling invective at him as though he were Satan personified. With friends like those, who needs enemies?


In the news columns of the Times, and even on its Op-Ed page (as opposed to the separate department that writes editorials) there are also hints of this same negativity, much more obliquely and/or subtly conveyed. True, the Times gives full publicity to the massive campaign that Romney & Ryan are waging, the billions being spent on their behalf by all the corporate manipulators allowed into the public arena by the Supreme Court’s decision in the “Citizens United” case, the way that Republican employers are writing to their employees and telling them to vote Republican, and the various attempts being made, inside and outside the courts, to disenfranchise potential Democratic voters.

On the other hand, it portrays the Obama campaign in a no more sympathetic light, emphasizing the billions it’s raised from wealthy supporters, and its mechanistic perfection and “grunt work” as opposed to the idealism and donations from small contributors with which Obama was associated in 2008.

Whenever possible, the Times also equates the two candidates, as for example in a front-page piece by Peter Baker on July 13 headlined “Candidates Racing for Future, Gaze Fixed Firmly on the Past,” which maintained that neither Romney nor Obama were coming up with any fresh ideas. In a story by John M. Broder that ran on October 26, the two candidates were again equated in that both agreed the world was warming but neither wanted to get into the specifics on how to prevent this trend from continuing. (My feeling is that opposing global warming and demanding climate control are what I call “designer issues,” meaning that, while they may have great appeal for more educated voters, the less educated see them as upper-class distractions from more pressing working-class issues such as unemployment and tax policy.) The same story made the point that both candidates wanted to come across as “lovers of oil, coal and natural gas,” but again this ignores the pressure on both candidates to emphasize their commitment to keeping the family car running & keeping household gas & electricity charges low.

Finally, there are the carping opinion pieces that blame Obama for not being a better salesman on his own behalf, not being articulate enough about what he stands for and would accomplish, not—in sum--coming across as Our Leader. Three major pieces that, in one way or another, echo this theme are “Obama’s Squandered Advantages” by Frank Bruni (October 28), “Still waiting for the Narrator in Chief,” by Matt Bai (October 30), and “The Loin King,” by Maureen Dowd (November 4), which openly wondered “Do we really know who will do what to whom?”

This train of negativity seems to have taken on its additional oomph since the first debate with Romney. Immediately after it, every liberal commentator on the air complained about Obama's performance, complaints which the print media then felt obligated to pick up and elaborate upon. This was the one debate I watched. I couldn’t handle the suspense of the others, but in that first debate, I thought Obama came across as quite persuasive. The big problem, as I look back on it, was that he was apparently unprepared for Romney’s 180-degree shift, from a committed conservative position to the sweetness & light of a moderate, though this shouldn’t have surprised him, bearing in mind that both he and Romney were competing for that uncommitted middle-of-the-road vote.


It was really this segment of the electorate that Romney was trying to reach when he spoke of the 47 percent of all voters who paid no taxes and would vote for Obama, no matter what. As online fact-checkers remarked, his command of statistics was way off, in that the largest number of people who pay no taxes are seniors, and among seniors, he gets many more votes than Obama does. But there is still method in his madness, a fact elucidated by Anand Giridharadas, in a September 21 column that appeared on the website of the NYTimes but in print only in the International Herald Tribune. This article suggested that it wasn’t the 1 percent whom Romney was trying to reach with this statistic, even though his statement was made to a group of wealthy potential donors.

Rather, he was after that segment of the electorate who is just above the 47 percent and pay taxes that they resent, just as they resent all the people who supposedly don’t pay taxes: it is the anger of people who fancy themselves “givers” and see others as “takers.” “It is the anger of the small-time salesman who works for commission with no days off toward the unionized teacher whom he sees going on strike,” wrote Giridharadas. “It is the bitterness of the plumber who came to the United States the right way toward compatriots who came illegally.”

It certainly resonated with my dental hygienist when I went to get my teeth cleaned. I don’t normally discuss politics with my doctors and dentists, because I have long believed that most of them (except for the psychoanalysts) are Republicans, and I want the best treatment I can get, which is best achieved by not raising hackles. My dermatologist is an authority on contemporary photography, sits on various museum committees, hangs examples of the best pomonian photography in his offices. A few sessions ago, I got into an argument about Pomonia v. Modernia with him, while he was “icing” off a bit of actinic keratosis (pre-malignant skin eruption). I think he must have been a little irked at me, and his hand must have slipped a little, because that “icing” took twice as long to heal as they normally do. Now I never say anything to him about contemporary photography unless it’s something nice.

But the dental hygienist was the one who brought up politics. While she had me helpless in the chair, she started going on angrily about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. I fought back, in between scrapings, and then, when the cleaning was over, and the dentist had come in to look for any possible cavities, complimented him and the hygienist on their restraint. (!) To my apparent sympathy, they responded with relief by saying what a problem it was for them, since virtually all their patients – being New Yorkers – were Democrats, whereas everybody in their office was Republican.

Turned out they evidently see themselves as living hand to mouth, totally unable to bear any new taxes, such as Obama threatens (it would seem that both have household incomes over $250,000). New York, they said, is the most expensive place in the country to live, and though they may be “comfortable,” they still have difficulty paying bills (the hygienist complained that she has to do comparison shopping). After I left, it occurred to me that I should have said that part of what makes New York so expensive is dental bills, and that they have the option of raising them (which they do) whereas I have to live on a fixed income, but hey, she’s an excellent hygienist & that’s really all that I can ask of her.


Anyway, I certainly hope that all the sourpusses who are angry because Barack Obama hasn’t been able to reshape the landscape the way that FDR did nevertheless get off their duffs and down to the polling places, where they should cast their votes for Obama. Even if you don’t think he turned in a starring performance, what he has done is a lot better than what Mitt Romney – and Paul Ryan – would do. Ask yourself—do you really want Affordable Health Care repealed? Do you really want Dodd-Frank repealed, and a return to the financial excesses of the Bush years? Do you really want Planned Parenthood defunded, and Roe v. Wade overturned? Do you really want the same sort of financial “austerity” that is plunging Greece and Spain into anarchy?

These are all things that would almost certainly happen if Romney becomes president, so even if you don’t see yourself as voting in favor of Obama, think of yourself as voting against Romney. Certainly, it would be nice to have a candidate you can wax starry-eyed about, but sometimes democracy is just a business of choosing the lesser of two evils. Even so, your vote counts, so for God’s sake, use it. It’s the privilege you get for living in a democracy, and, as the old saying goes, if you don’t use it, you may one day lose it.

Nor should you allow your hubris to trap you into voting for the Green Party candidate, Jill Stein. For third parties are the bane of the electoral system. Look at the mess they've created in the UK, where -- both in the 1930s and at present-- two left-wing parties split the left-wing vote and are thereby perpetuating the reign of the Tories. If, in your heart of hearts, you really want Romney for your next president, vote Green. It will certainly show that mean old Obama that he can't trifle with your affections, but at what cost--to the country and --ultimately --to yourself?
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