Gary Younge's column in the latest Nation tries to hold a middle ground between a disgruntled left and die-hard Obama acolytes who can't stand criticism of the first black President. He credits Obama when credit is due but calls the President's record "clearly a mixed bag" from a progressive perspective. "The man is not a radical, He never was," Younge writes, "Nor did he say he was." The Presidency itself, he contends, "is no vehicle for radical reform. While advising progressives to "make no excuses for him," Younge closes on an all-too-typical note of resignation. Obama was "the best that could be elected the last time. And this time. And that's the problem."
I'm glad that Younge concedes that this is a problem, but whose fault is it? Part of the answer depends on the pool from which Younge selects whom he'll vote for. If he means only that Obama was the best of the two major-party candidates of 2008, then he's right and wrong at the same time: right about the choice between Obama and McCain, wrong in the assumption that there were no other options -- wrong even if he meant "the best that could be elected" in a purely realistic sense. Another part of the answer can be found elsewhere in the same magazine. A few pages ahead of Younge in the print edition, Ari Berman sounds the quadrennial alarm about the Supreme Court. In Berman's representative opinion, you could be even less sanguine about Obama than Younge, yet you would have to vote for him to prevent Romney from appointing more right-wing justices to the high court, or to make possible the appointment of more progressive justices. By voting for President, you're implicitly voting for any number of future justices, none of whom were meant to be elected -- a situation that could only arise in an environment of irreconcilable ideological conflict that the Framers failed to anticipate. The same calculation presumably dictates our votes for U.S. Senate; ideologues want someone who'll confirm the right people and reject the wrong people, even though the logic of constitutional law would seem to suggest that only the justices themselves, or the pool of specialists from whom justices are recruited, can say certainly who is right and who is wrong. In effect, only party-line voting can guarantee the "correct" result; only a President and Senate of the same party can secure that degree of control over the Court that ideologues want but the Constitution supposedly denies them. In short, it's the usual reasoning that only the Democrats stand between us and Republican devastation -- or vice versa. It would seem that no one really believes in the separation of powers any more -- and under such circumstances, only the parties really have power. The need to control the Court that apparently compels people to vote for one party or another is glaring proof of the decadence of our political system. Ideologically driven partisanship is the real problem, one for which Younge offers no solution and his Nation colleagues only exacerbate. We shouldn't be asking "who started it?" but striving to figure out a solution. Shrugging one's shoulders and settling for Obama as "the best that could be elected" seems increasingly like a dereliction of duty.