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Bernard Weiner | What Happens When We Don’t See the Tipping Points

Often in our busy daily lives, we miss the significance of a piece of news. Sometimes it’s not until years later that we realize how very important that news event was in shifting the paradigm.

Often in our busy daily lives, we miss the significance of a piece of news. Sometimes it’s not until years later that we realize how very important that news event was in shifting the paradigm.

For example: In 1981, President Reagan fired all 11,000 striking air-traffic controllers, and the liberal left didn’t really organize itself to respond forcefully. That breaking of a labor union was the linchpin for much more anti-liberal mischief at the hands of the Reaganite conservatives for the next eight years — and beyond. And the liberal left, as personified by the Democratic Party, remained confused and toothless in its opposition.

But that was then, when the rightwing was in flower. Now we supposedly have a liberal in the White House and the Democrats control both houses of Congress. So surely there aren’t such tipping-point events happening now.

Not so fast. Let’s take a look at a few candidates and see the possible ramifications for the body politic.

The Destruction of Acorn

Highly analogous to the Reagan-era attack on the air-traffic controllers was what happened to one of this country’s most effective community-aiding organizations, ACORN. For more than four decades, ACORN had been highly effective in helping low-income citizens register to vote. Those poor and minorities tended to vote Democratic. As a result, Karl Rove and his acolytes made ACORN their number one target. Indeed, the firing of all those U.S. attorneys around the country derived from the unwillingness of a number of U.S. attorneys to go after ACORN right before an election on phony accusations of voting fraud.

There may have been a few bad apples in ACORN’s large organization, but most of the work done by ACORN employees and volunteer was positive and thoroughly in tune with the small-d democratic impulse in American politics.

When the Republican noise- and spin-machines went into warpdrive over one tiny incident last Fall — a staged “gotcha!” event supposedly involving a prostitute and her pimp — the Democrats, worried that they might get tarred as “ACORN supporters,” joined forces with the Republicans to pass a bill denying federal funding to the organization.

The eventual result was that ACORN a few weeks ago was forced to close up shop, after its private donor base was scared off by all the controversy. A mighty force for good was silenced and destroyed. It doesn’t matter that twice in recent months, federal judges ruled that the law passed by Congress was an unconstitutional bill of attainder: i.e., designed to punish just one person or group. Those decisions came too late: ACORN is no more.

The left didn’t react with indignation and organized dissent when Reagan busted the air-traffic controllers’ union, and they paid the long-term price for their political cowardice. And the left abandoned the politically toxic ACORN (and even jumped on board to help pass the destructive de-funding bill), and thus gave the extreme right more license to go even crazier against more liberal and progressive legislation and groups. Once again, the Dems will be paying for this one for many years to come.

Obama’s Public Option Sell-Out

President Obama, who campaigned on the principle of offering public competition to the health-care insurance carriers, sold out early on this issue to the insurance companies and for-profit hospitals. Behind closed doors early on, Obama promised in exchange for their support and muted criticisms of his health-care plan that he would never OK a “public option” that would harm their bottom-line.

(Also, in exchange for their support on the health-care bill, Obama sold out to the giant pharmaceutical corporations, guaranteeing them there would be no Medicare negotiations for cheaper drug prices and no importation of less-expensive drugs from Canada.)

For nearly a year after he made those secret vows to the health-care giants, Obama continued to pretend that he favored the public option, saying so in appearances and speeches often, but behind the scenes he made sure to kill any attempts to move that option into the health care bill.

The result is that the insurance companies will face no competition and thus the public has no leverage to get them to reduce their rates. As a matter of fact, those companies will be raising them again and again and again as the years go by, even as they rake in humongous profits, since Obama’s health-care plan includes a mandatory requirement that everyone will have to buy health insurance. (Those who need some financial assistance will get such from the federal government, but most of us will wind up paying about what we pay now, or more. And those rates can, and will, rise over the years.)

Obama and his chief advisors were quite aware that the progressive base would feel betrayed and angry at this sell-out to the forces of rapacious American capitalism, but felt the left eventually would support their awful bill because they had little choice. At least, after 100 years of trying, the principle of health-care-as-a-right finally would be inside the tent of political respectability. More reforms would be possible later. So, yes, progressives (led by Dennis Kucinich) wound up voting for the bill, rather than joining with the regressive Republicans to kill the first decent chance of getting at least an incremental foot-in-the-door on health care.

Even though Obama, at the urging of the heath-care mega-corporations, postponed implementing key sections of the act until after the 2012 election, he may well have pissed off enough voters on the left and middle (the right was already a lost cause) to guarantee that he will be a one-term president.

Short-term gain for long-term pain. The usual political calculation: I’ll take the goodies now, and hope I can finagle something later to fool the sheople into supporting me then. Obama & Co. may have grossly miscalculated the rising level of anger and frustration coming not just from the extreme far-right teapartiers but from his own outraged base.

Obama and the Cover-Up

Obama is quite aware that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, and their underlings, committed serious crimes: breaking both federal laws against torture and warrantless surveillance of U.S. citizens, and international laws against starting aggressive wars and carrying out torture. But the Obama Administration refuses to prosecute CheneyBush and has come to their defense in court. In so doing, Obama could be seen as being guilty of furthering a cover-up, which is itself a felony.

Why would the President behave in such a fashion? Several possibilities present themselves:

  1. That some kind of deal was struck with the outgoing leaders by the incoming leader. Some kind of quid pro quo, although about what precisely is not known.
  2. That Obama does not want to have a court case create a precedent that could tie his hands when it comes to surveillance, warfare, torture. Indeed, Obama seems to be comfortable continuing many of the most egregious, despicable policies of the CheneyBush Administration when it comes to “national security,” such as keeping open the possibility of rendering terror suspects to other countries notorious for their brutal interrogation methods. His Administration defends the concept of “state secrets,” the indefinite confinement of terror suspects charged with no crimes, and with maintaining the government’s power to violate civil liberties at will when it comes to eavesdropping and the right of privacy.
  3. That Obama is having a hard enough time getting anything through Congress, especially facing a thoroughy hostile Republican opposition, and thus wants to not stir up old animosities and issues. He says he wants the country to “move forward,” not spend time and energy “looking backward.”
  4. Supposedly, the impeachment of Bill Clinton was partial payback for driving Nixon out of office. Obama might well believe that pattern of tit-for-tat destruction of a president has to be broken. In short, no examination of the crimes of Bush and Cheney.

To my mind, scenario #2 seems most operative here. Once a president is given, or (as in the case with the previous administration) grabs, more and more power into his own hands, at the expense of upsetting the traditional “balance of power” between the Executive and Legislative branches, those larger parameters rarely shrink. If you build it, they will come and want to operate on the same expansive playing field.

Obama may be thinking long-range here: If you permit the country to try and perhaps to convict a former president, the precedent is established that presidents from now on are fair game at the least, for impeachment for their alleged crimes. Ergo, Obama will not permit delving into whatever crimes may have been committed by Bush and Cheney.

Positive Tipping Points?

These are just three possible negative tipping-point events (and their ramifications) that are not receiving the attention they deserve.

But there are also positive events worth taking a look at. It’s possible nothing much will come of them, that they’re really not tipping points, but since positive events for liberals have been few and far between, they are worth at least noting, to see what possible meaning we can take from them.

Fighting Back, at Last

Obama and his Democratic leaders in Congress have permitted themselves to be rolled often and easily by the determined Republican minority. Just the threat of a filibuster in the Senate was enough to make the Democrats quake in fear and pull in their horns.

When the Democrats took the daring step of confronting the Republicans frontally by slip-sliding away from the filibuster boogeyman and passing the health-care bill by majority vote, the Dems seemed to finally realize they had power and could use it.

This led to Obama telling the Republicans in the Senate that their days of total obstructionism were coming to an end. They had locked up nearly 80 nominees for important posts and refused those nominees up-or-down confirmation votes in the Senate, many of them for six months or more. So, during the recent Congressional break, Obama simply gave 15 of those nominee “recess appointments” for the life of the current Congress, which is to say until 2112. (Bush made 170 recess appointments during his two terms.)

In addition, the Democrats are feeling their oats a bit more, and might even go for majority “reconciliation” votes on upcoming major bills, including the Dodd bill calling for more oversight of financial institutions. This bill, by the way, is woefully deficient, and leaves all sorts of loopholes for the giant banks. What I’m talking about here is the Dems’ willingness to confront the Republicans openly.

Surprising Truth From Afghanistan

The U.S. plays down, or outright denies, the huge number of “collateral-damage” deaths of civilians in Afghanistan. “Shit happens” seems to be the operative mode when raining down missiles aimed at Taliban forces, though on occasion the Americans have felt forced to apologize for the most embarrassing of such massacres of innocents.

So hearing the recent admission by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the senior U.S. and NATO commander, about those all-too-frequent mass-deaths at coalition hands could be a sign of a rift between the military on the ground and the civilian leadership giving the orders.

Here’s what McChrystal said about a week ago: “We have shot an amazing number of people, but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat.” In other words, the U.S. is slaughtering innocent civilians on a regular basis, for no good reason.

His comments came during a recent videoconference to answer questions from troops on the ground about civilian casualties. Such deaths were supposed to be much reduced in number under new rules ordered by McChrystal.

One can read this startling admission as a pushback from the U.S. military in Afghanistan to civilian/CIA orders to continue aggressive actions against suspected Taliban hideouts, regardless of the civilian “collateral damage.” Continuing such deadly policies do little but anger the locals (many of whom see these killings as “mass murder”) and provide a major recruiting tool for the Taliban. No wonder President Karzai is so outspoken against the continuing campaign of the Americans/NATO.

One can hope that Obama and his military advisors will see that the American campaign in Afghanistan is a no-win situation, and get the hell out of there at relatively little cost rather than risk getting America sucked further into the quagmire for another decade or two. Especially fighting for a corrupt government in Kabul and in many of the provinces that really doesn’t want the U.S. there.

Copyright 2010 by Bernard Weiner

This article also appears on The Crisis Papers site.

Bernard Weiner, Ph.D. in government & international relations, has taught at universities in California and Washington, worked as a writer/editor with the San Francisco Chronicle for two decades, and currently serves as co-editor of The Crisis Papers ( To comment: [email protected]