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Jeff Cohen: People should support Obama primary challenge and finance candidates who fight corp. agenda

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: In Washington, the debt ceiling debate is over, the vote’s taken place, and everybody’s declaring victory–at least the leadership is. The leadership of the Republican Party say they got most of what they wanted. The Tea Party’s rather happy with themselves, even if they still want more. But the leadership of the Democratic Party is calling this victory as well. Here’s Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chair of the DNC; here’s what she had to say: “The president and Democrats’ primary focus has been to ensure that we meet our obligations and avoid default while beginning to get our fiscal house in order. This deal accomplishes that. It puts in place a framework for long-term fiscal discipline and it makes a down payment on deficit reduction. The agreement sets the stage for a balanced package that includes revenues.” Now joining us to give us his take on the deal is Jeff Cohen. Jeff is joining us from Ithaca, New York. He’s a professor at Ithaca College. He’s also the founder of FAIR, which is a pioneer in media criticism. And he’s the author of the book Cable News Confidential. Thanks for joining us, Jeff.


JAY: So what do you make of what Ms. Wasserman Schultz says, this is more or less a victory for the Democratic Party?

COHEN: I don’t think there’s anyone alive who believes her. I don’t think she believes herself. This was a near total victory for the Republicans. When you hear the Boehners and McConnells claiming they got 98 percent of what they wanted, you can believe them. This is the time that the Republicans are telling the truth. They have the facts on their side. This was a complete defeat for those who want to preserve Social Security and Medicare, for those who believe the wealthy should be taxed, for those who want these wars to come to an end. I mean, the only people that really benefited were the superrich and the Republican ideologues, and there’s no other way to spin it.

JAY: I’ve mentioned this in a few of my other interviews. When President Obama was first taking office, within days, in January ’08, he had a dinner with some of the conservative pundits, including George Will and David Brooks and a couple of others, Kristol and Krauthammer. And David Brooks emerged from that saying that President Obama had reassured them that after a period of stimulus, he was going to go for significant entitlement reform, and Brooks particularly mentioned Social Security and health care–I shouldn’t say health care; I should say Medicare–and that the conservative columnists were all more or less happy. So is part of the issue here is that this has been the Obama agenda as well, it’s not just a Republican agenda?

COHEN: I think that’s exactly correct. Obama came into the White House with his Wall Street advisers, and I think they were already committed to cutting Social Security and Medicare. It’s clear when Lawrence Summers, the top economic adviser for President Obama, he was telling Time magazine right at the beginning, around January 2009, that there were specific ways they could reduce Social Security and Medicare. You’ll remember Obama made a public statement echoing the right-wing claims about Social Security that there’s red ink as far as you can see it. So in my mind it’s a mistake when you hear people say, wow, Obama’s weak, he caved in to conservative and corporate interests. What’s wrong about that is the evidence points to a president who was elected heavily with Wall Street money. He put the Wall Street advisers as his top economic advisers. He tried to get in his original cabinet Republican Senator Judd Gregg from New Hampshire, who was a foe, of course, of Social Security and Medicare. Then he builds this bipartisan deficit commission where he puts a real enemy of Social Security and Medicare, Alan Simpson, as the cochair. So I don’t think this is a caving. I think when you’re in bed with the Wall Street advisers, the Wall Street Democrats, when Wall Street is your main–. No one had ever received more campaign money from Wall Street than candidate–presidential candidate Barack Obama. I think he always was with this faction and it’s a misunderstanding that he’s just always caving to the corporate–.

JAY: Okay. So let’s assume that this–the president, Obama, is in the long tradition of corporate Democrats–Clinton and others, more or less almost all the presidents that have been Democrats. But I see that there’s even a split on Wall Street. There was a piece in The Financial Times today from the–one of the co-runners of the PIMCO investment fund, which manages about $1 trillion, calling this thing a debacle and actually saying the emphasis should be on jobs. You have people like Soros. I mean, there are sections of Wall Street that actually want some kind of stimulus and don’t want this big cut. So it’s not like it’s all Wall Street. But there is something specific about the sector that wants austerity and Obama going along with that sector. Like, he’s–I guess my point is he’s not even going along with some of the backers on Wall Street who would have supported him if he stood up here.

COHEN: I agree with you. I agree with you. But I–I mean, the main force that Obama’s been allied with for years, even when he was in the Senate, is these Wall Street Democrats who–I’m sure they’re very strong pro-choice on abortion–they really believe that regulation on Wall Street should be, if anything, very, very tame, if at all, that Social Security and Medicare need to be trimmed, and that taxes on the wealthy should be very, very low. And I think that’s the agenda we’ve gotten. It’s an agenda somewhere between Obama’s corporatism and the Republicans’ right-wing ideology. I mean, I had a column this week about how this whole debate has happened on the 5 yard line. I mean, if you were looking at this debate from above, like in a skybox of a stadium, and you’re watching a football game, this whole thing is between the 10 yard line and the goal line. You know, that’s where the debate has been, because both teams in a sense collaborated to build up this huge debt. You know, the bailout of the banks was bipartisan. Bush’s wars became Obama’s wars, and he expanded them. You have the Wall Street deregulation of President Reagan, President Clinton, that led to the meltdown and the recession which has so hurt our revenues. And, of course, the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy have become the Obama tax cuts. There we’re talking about trillions of dollars of debt, and both teams collaborated. So right now they’re way off, they’re on the right edge of the field, fighting over these minor things of how much should be cut from Social Security, not whether. Remember, Obama put that on the table, cutting Social Security and Medicare. They’re basically now debating how much. There’s no reason in the world that those things have to be cut at all if–.

JAY: So where does that leave people like you? And when I mean people like you, like, I know you’ve been involved in PDA, Progressive Democrats of America. You’re now one of the founders of But Progressive Democrats of America has been about trying to either push the Democratic Party to the left or take over sections of the Democratic Party. I mean, where does that leave people in the electoral–in their electoral activism and choice?

COHEN: Well, is an important new online activist group, and they were putting out–they were the first group to put out an email, “No Deal”, encouraging Democrats to vote no. And I’m happy to say most Democrats in the House voted no on this deal. But in terms of electorally, clearly what we need in Congress is not more Democrats; we need more people like Dennis Kucinich, we need more people like Barbara Lee, we need more independents like Bernie Sanders. So, you know, what I think–progressives who work in the electoral arena are not going to be wasting time with Obama versus whoever. They’re going to be working for people like Norman Solomon in–who’s running for Congress in the North Bay of California. They’ll be working for actual progressives who want to put the wars on the table, who want to put taxing the rich back on the table, who want to put a transaction tax on Wall Street back on the table. I mean, there is a progressive agenda. And I want to tell you, Paul, most of the American people want these wars ended, they want Wall Street regulated, they want the rich taxed. These are majority positions.

JAY: Okay. So–but the realpolitik, even if that’s true in terms of polling, if, you know, someone who supports President Obama’s strategy–you know, they’re going to challenge you, I would think, in this way: it doesn’t matter what the opinion polls show, because when it comes down to hard elections, it comes down to a handful of swing states, and in those handful of swing states, the Republicans really have a lot of opportunity at play–you can see from the 2010 elections what they were able to accomplish in the midterms–and that Obama has to go this route, or he loses the presidency, and if you don’t have the presidency, you can’t do any of this anyway. So this is the real world of American politics. And I’m assuming they would say, you guys are just utopian.

COHEN: The fallacy, Paul, in your argument is it was Obama’s–.

JAY: It ain’t my argument. I’m giving what I think is their argument.

COHEN: In their argument, it was Obama’s corporatism, his bailing out of the banks but not having a foreclosure freeze for middle-class families, his too-small stimulus, his corporate-approved health care reform that’ll probably get very few people on actual health care coverage, it was the corporatism, the conciliation, the appeasement that led to the destruction of the Democrats in November 2010. Now Obama is even more toward the corporate agenda. So it may be that Obama is slowly digging his own grave. He may be beyond hope. He may be bringing the Democrats down with him. You and I spoke on Real News Network on the night of the November 2010 elections, and I talked about how Obama brought down the independent progressive Democrat Russ Feingold in Wisconsin. It was Obama’s coattails that sucked him downward. So, I mean, it’s important for us to talk to–. Obama is a lost cause. There are many people that are talking about how to run a primary Democrat against him in Iowa, in the caucuses in New Hampshire. But the real energy of progressives, of people that care about social justice, the real energy is with independent groups like And then, in the electoral arena, it’s with actual progressive Democrats who will get in there and not just fight the extreme right-wing Republicans, but they’ll get in there and they’ll fight Obama’s corporate agenda. We had most Democrats in the House voting against Obama on this deal. We need dozens and dozens more. We need more Bernie Sanders, more Dennis Kuciniches, more Barbara Lees. That’s the way forward is to build up the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.

JAY: Now, what do you say to people that have given up on the Democratic Party altogether? They think there either has to be some kind of third party movement, that the corporate Democrats one way or the other always wind up controlling the Democratic Party agenda.

COHEN: Paul, I think in our country, unfortunately, we just don’t–we have an 18th-century democracy. We don’t have proportional representation. We–you know, it’s basically a system that excludes third parties. We haven’t had a successful one since the 1850s and 1860s. I’m not against third parties and independent efforts in local arenas, or even running for Congress. Bernie Sanders was elected as an independent to Vermont. But I don’t care whether you run as an independent or run as a Democrat; the key is to get progressives in Congress.

JAY: Well, if you’re going to do that, it seems to me you’re going to really have to have some active involvement of the trade union movement. I mean, you talk about fighting the corporate Democrats. So far, at least, the majority of the national leadership of the unions will barely say a critical word about President Obama. And I haven’t noticed–I haven’t actually seen in the last few days where they are, so I don’t know if that’s changed since the vote, the debt ceiling vote. But certainly up until that vote, there wasn’t a–barely a pipsqueak out of the trade union leaders about Obama. How much of this can change if something doesn’t change in the unions?

COHEN: Paul, you are exactly right that the only way you’re going to get a progressive reform movement that really starts taking power is if those liberal constituency groups that put all their money with the Obamas and the Bill Clintons and the Hillary Clintons, you know, whether you’re talking about the labor unions, the big environmental groups, they keep electing corporate Democrats and watch their agenda get voted down or ignored. So it’s up to–. And Richard Trumka, the head of the union movement, has said, we’re going to put our money this time with people that will really support labor. So the question for unions and big environmental groups and big feminist groups and big consumer rights groups: are you going to start trying to build up the progressive wing of American politics? Or are you always going to take your millions of dollars and support the Bill Clintons and the Obamas? Because that’s a waste–.

JAY: So their answer to that is: in the end we do it because the alternative is the Republicans get in. And look at the current Republicans–the level of sociopathy of the Bush-Cheney administration. And who knows what could follow. So the Republican thing looks, as we know, so awful, you wind up having to support the only force that seems to have the money and wherewithal to fight them, and that’s the corporate Democrats.

COHEN: I just think it’s mythology. The corporate Democrats keep selling out the agenda to the right-wing. What’s the difference between being on the goal line with the Republicans or being on the 5 yard line with Obama? If you’re trying to defend unions that–where middle-class people are being attacked, you’re not defending them if the debate is over here on the 5 yard line. If those unions and environmental groups and consumer rights groups don’t start redirecting their money to the Bernie Sanderses and the Russ Feingolds and the Barbara Lees and the Kuciniches, you know, it’s just not going to happen. Barack Obama’s going to get all the money he wants from Wall Street. As you pointed out, you know, Wall Street is not dissatisfied with Obama. Many Wall Streeters with big money prefer Obama to the right-wing crazies they think are going to junk the economy. So, you know, Obama has served corporate interests well. They funded him heavily in 2008. They’re going to–Wall Street may fund them even more in 2012. And so the idea that labor unions and environmentalists have to play in that arena is stupid. What they need to be doing is to have a left pressure group acting on the Obamas, acting on the Democratic White Houses. And the only way to do that is to start making an alliance with the real fighters for the progressive cause, who are pushing an agenda that is the majority agenda with the American public–taxing the rich, taxing Wall Street, regulating Wall Street, getting out of these wars. It’s not Obama’s agenda, but it should be the agenda of the labor movement, of the consumer rights movement, of the environmental movement, and those movements have got to start building up a different wing of elected power and quit investing in the Obamas who are going to raise huge amounts of money from Wall Street and the corporations. They don’t need the money of these other groups. But independent-minded progressive Congress members and Senate candidates need that money.

JAY: Thanks for joining us, Jeff.

COHEN: Thank you.

JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network. And speaking of money, don’t forget the donate button somewhere over here, ’cause if you don’t do that, we can’t do this.

End of Transcript

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Jeff Cohen was the director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, and he was the founder of the media watchdog FAIR. He is the co-founder of