So David Sirota has a new article at Salon essentially arguing why liberals should vote for Paul for President over Obama (but he’s not really, he swears!). The short version is this: Paul is 50% progressive and Obama is 50% progressive, so either person you choose is OK. However, Paul can implement all his progressive stuff without Congress and Congress will block everything liberals don’t like about Paul. Meanwhile, Obama can implement his evil half without Congress, and Congress will block his progressive half, so we get nothing from him. So we just as well vote for Paul.
Of course, there are some serious problems with this. The first problem is that Sirota is essentially making the judgement call that things like racism, destroying the welfare state, destroying labor laws, environmental regulations, unions, and so on is equally as evil as Obama sending more troops into Afghanistan, using drones, killing Anwar al-Awlaki, and the drug war. I think this is a very difficult equivalence to make, but his entire article is essentially based on this premise. Is using drones really as bad as eliminating environmental regulations? Is sending more troops into Afghanistan really as bad as allowing corporations to run their workers into the ground? Is continuing the drug war really as bad as gutting Social Security and Medicare? Sirota appears to think so. I don’t know about you, but I think Paul’s flaws here far outweigh Obama’s
However, let’s take Sirota’s claim at face value that Paul is just as much of a progressive as Obama is, but just on different issues. I’m sure we’ll agree on the issues where we think Obama is a progressive, so let’s address the list where he claims Paul is:
At the same time, though, when it comes to war, surveillance, police power, bank bailouts, cutting the defense budget, eliminating corporate welfare and civil liberties, Paul is more in line with progressive goals than any candidate running in 2012 (or almost any Democrat who has held a federal office in the last 30 years). This, too, is indisputable.
See! This is indisputable. Except I’m about to dispute it right now.
Let’s take them one at a time:
If you oppose Afghanistan completely (and I would argue that, while this is the majority positions among progressives, it’s still not a universal one), Paul’s position still isn’t as great as it sounds. First off, wars take a while to wind down. Obama essentially ended the Iraq war as quickly as was feasible. He’s in the process of doing the same thing in Afghanistan. It’s hard to see how Paul would be able to pull out of Afghanistan significantly quicker unless you just don’t care about things going to hell in the process. I’m sure some may argue it will go to hell anyway, but perhaps we have a responsibility to try to prevent that as much as we can?
It also seems unlikely that Obama is going to get us engaged in any similar type of war in his second term as well. This leaves us with situations like Libya. About the only argument here is that you oppose using military force at all for any reason. It’s hard to find a reason to oppose Libya except for a universal opposition to the use of military force. Of course, the problem here is that that’s not really Paul’s position. He’s not anti-war in the Kucinich sense. Yes, he’s against things like doing things in Libya. But if someone attacks us, it’s not like Paul is going to refuse to respond. His main thing is the belief that a declaration of war is required to take action, not that we shouldn’t take action.
So is Paul better than Obama on war? I suppose that depends on your point of view. Obama ended Iraq and is ending Afghanistan. It’s hard to see how Paul is better here. I actually think limited military strikes such as what we did in Libya to take out dictators may actually be a good use of the military, though if you disagree you would side with Paul on that. Otherwise, it’s difficult to see an appreciable difference between the two candidates right now.
2) Police Power
Here’s the problem with this argument: the vast majority of police power is vested in the states which, frankly, Paul doesn’t really care about. Indeed, I think he’s essentially made it clear that the states can do whatever they want. In fact, one could argue that Paul is worse on police power because he would oppose any sort of federal check on the use of police powers by the state where Obama might, if a situation got serious enough anyway. All of these OWS crackdowns were done by city and state forces, after all, not federal forces.
3) Bank Bailouts
Here is the thing about the bailouts: they were necessary. I know many progressives hate even thinking about admitting it, but you pretty much have to. Not doing TARP (which didn’t cost us anything in the end, by the way) would have resulted in pretty much the economy collapsing.
So the question here is: how do we prevent doing bank bailouts in the future? There are essentially two options: the first is to implement regulations that make bank bailouts unnecessary in the future. Obama and Democrats have been trying to work toward this goal. This option is also antithetical to Paul’s libertarian ideas. The other option is to not have any regulations and just not bail out the banks and let the economy burn.
I find it difficult to grasp how Paul is better on this issue. Obama supported the bailouts in 2008 because that was our only real choice at the time. As a consequence, he’s supported policies that will hopefully make it unnecessary to have to do the same thing in the future. Paul opposes both bailing banks out and having regulations that would prevent situations where bailing out banks may become necessary, and as a result, essentially supports a form of economic armageddon. Again, it’s hard to see how this is the superior policy position.
4) Cutting the Defense Budget
The biggest problem with cutting the defense budget has more to do with about 500 members of Congress being opposed to it that who the president is. Also, it’s not like Paul opposes the military. Yes, he would cut the budget by closing bases and things like that and is perhaps the position I agree with Paul on the most, personally. It’s also the issue where the President has perhaps the least power of all to actually effect change because the opposition to it in Congress is so strong and vast. Also, Obama has signalled willingness to cut the defense budget himself. Certainly not to levels that Paul might, but it’s certainly better than any other GOP alternative would come even close to.
5) Corporate Welfare
I find this argument actually rather silly because it doesn’t take into account the candidate’s complete views on corporations. Sure, Paul opposes corporate welfare, but only because he opposes government doing anything in general, not because he’s some sort of anti-corporate crusader. OK, so you get rid of corporate welfare. But what do you get in exchange? Repeal of labor laws? Repeal of safety laws? Repeal of consumer protection laws? That hardly seems like an equal trade. And it’s not like Obama is big on the corporate welfare bandwagon himself. And he would keep all of that other stuff too. Again, I find it hard to accept the argument that Paul is actually better than Obama on this issue.
6) Civil Liberties
For sure, Obama perhaps hasn’t done as much on civil liberties as some people probably hoped he would. But this notion that he’s restricted them even further seems silly to me. Also, I think you have to look at the entire package here. Paul may improve civil liberties on the federal level, but may very well allow states to violate people’s civil liberties – and civil rights – at that level. And, much like the police powers, much of this rests on the state level and not just the federal level. So while Paul may be, in absolute terms, better than Obama here, I don’t think the advantage is as big as people make it out to be.
I’m sure part of the hope here with Obama is that he would oppose the PATRIOT ACT. And indeed, he has renewed the law without any real changes, although he has implemented some improvements unilaterally that at least makes things a little better. Certainly he probably hasn’t done enough to roll back some of the surveillance things Bush put into place, but it is also hard to argue that he’s made things worse. This may be the only real point where one can say without very much equivocating that Paul would probably be better than Obama. Of course, that comes back to the question about whether this issue is enough to abandon everything else.
So, despite Sirota’s claim of Paul being “indisputably” better than Obama on the above 7 issues, I’d say that Paul isn’t actually better than Obama at all on 3 of them, is better, but with an asterisk or not as much as people like to claim on 3 others, and is actually clearly better on 1 issue.
Now let’s address the 2nd part of Sirota’s claim, which is essentially that Paul won’t be able to implement the things liberals don’t like about him because of Congress.
With perhaps the exception of the defense budget (which is the main thing liberals like), this is a pretty silly argument. Why? Because when it comes to the budget, Paul largely falls in line with the GOP, and there is a not insignificant chance that the GOP will control both Houses of Congress come 2013. If that’s the case, who, exactly, is going to stand in Paul’s way?
And even if you address some of the more extreme parts of Paul’s plan, even those that the GOP may balk at, Paul has a great card: the veto pen. After all, if your plan is to essentially eliminate government, is there much different between getting a budget passed that does just that and repeatedly vetoing budgets that don’t and getting government shutdowns in the meantime? Not really.
About the only things Paul couldn’t do without Congress is mandatory spending – mainly Social Security and Medicare. Those can’t be touched without an active act of Congress. But again, if he has a GOP congress to work with, do people really believe those won’t be carved up as well? Paul may have to compromise on completely eliminating them, but if we get to that point in the debate, it’s already going to be too late for progressives.
So in conclusion, what do we have? This appears to be an exercise in overstating Paul’s positive, overstating Obama’s negatives, and then pretending that Obama’s negatives and Paul’s negatives are roughly equal in weight. Sirota tries to argue that such a choice is “debatable” but I find it hard to see how it is. One is essentially saying “since Obama isn’t a 100% pure progressive, then we’ll go with the guy who supports the few things that Obama isn’t really doing, but nevermind that he’ll destroy everything else.” As I’ve kind of said on twitter a couple times, people are abandoning Obama over 1 or 2 issues, despite all others, but are willing to support Paul over 1 or 2 issues, despite all others. And yet, we, the Obama supporters, are the ones “willing to accept anything” our candidate does.