Where is the Bold Leadership?

This was published by New Matilda, 22 Jan 2010.

The Republican victory in Ted Kennedy’s former senate seat in Massachusetts may seem a long way from Australia, but there are similar forces at work in both countries.  So far, no major political party in the Anglophone world has been willing to directly challenge the right-wing ascendancy of the past three decades, and we continue to pay a heavy price for their timidity and lack of vision.

The Democrat loss in Massachusetts is a heavy blow to President Barack Obama, at two levels.  It will affect short-term politics, because the Democrats will lose their two-thirds majority in the Senate, which is required to overcome Republican obstruction.  Health reform and a climate bill may be the major casualties.  However the loss is also a measure of Obama’s failure to follow through on the soaring rhetoric of his campaign, by clearly reframing the big debates in his society and by openly challenging Wall Street.

Obama adopted a strategy of reaching for bipartisanship in order to overcome some of the deep divisions in U.S. society and politics.  As part of that strategy he softened his rhetoric, and he avoided direct challenges to right-wingers and their world view.  Unfortunately, and unsuprisingly, the right-wingers didn’t play his game.  They pursued a strategy of obstruction, spoiling, distortion and lying.  Their game is to ensure Obama’s presidency fails, even if America fails in the process, as it was failing under the rule of their previous icon, Bush II.  They want power, period.

During his campaign, Obama was expert at reframing issues according to his own vision.  This is crucial in politics, as linguist George Lakoff spelt out in his short book Don’t Think of an Elephant.  If you want your audience to appreciate the advantages of donkeys (to use the American symbolism) then talk about donkeys.  If you spend your time arguing against elephants, they will be thinking of elephants and will never notice the advantages of donkeys.

Obama, in his campaign and in his inaugural speech, drew on the words and imagery of the American Revolution and Abraham Lincoln to justify working together, giving a helping hand to those less fortunate and facing up to the huge challenges of passing a viable world to our children.  He excited many people who had been disillusioned that politics was run by the rich for the rich.  Young people, black people and progressives turned out in large numbers, and they gave their enthusiasm and their money to his cause.

When Obama got to Washington he did not challenge the rule of money that has corrupted Congress.  He sat down with them.  He left much of the initiative to them.  Democrats in Congress have little definable ideology or principle.  Their tenure there depends on money, and they are beholden to money, and they were not going to go against big money unless the people, led by the President, loudly insisted they govern for the people, not for the fatcats.

The result is that a lot of people feel let down.  This made them vulnerable to the standard right-wing messages – Democrats are big spenders, they’ll create a nanny-state, and so on.  The Massachusetts loss is being widely portrayed in those terms.  Obama has only himself to blame.  He left the rhetorical field open to Republicans, and their message is prevailing.

Unless Obama changes strategy and stands up for his campaign vision, his army of supporters will stay home next time, and he will be a one-term president.  Who will take over?  Dick Cheney?  Sarah Palin?

The same forces are at work in Australia, though they play out differently in our local politics and culture.  After the “brutopia” of John Howard, Kevin Rudd seemed to promise a return of fairness and compassion to politics, and a revival of the best of Aussie character, instead of Howard’s consistent cultivation of the worst in us.

However Rudd has refused to lead, as I wrote last year.  His most notable actions have been symbolic ones that would not upset powerful sponsors – Kyoto and Sorry.  His government fiddles at the edges of policy and shows no inclination to undo the substantial legislative and cultural transformation that Howard accomplished.  His reform of Workchoices was minimal.  He did not reframe the asylum-seeker debate, though it would be easy to do.  He has made no move to rid the ABC Board of its ideological enemies, which could be done using the Green’s sensible proposals for a restructuring and an arms-length appointment process.

Let Rudd’s own words measure the gap between his rhetoric, such as it is, and his actions.  Here is what is he wrote in October 2006, in Howard’s Brutopia.

“There are no more corrosive agents at work today, on the so-called conservative institutions of family, community, church and country, than the unforgiving forces of neo-liberalism, materialism and consumerism, which lay waste to anything in their path. This deep split within the Right provides new opportunities for the Labor Party to argue for a comprehensive set of values that intelligently harnesses both the importance of the market and the importance of the family, community and society which markets ultimately serve.”

Where are the arguments for this vision?  How exactly has the Rudd ministry set about reframing the vision from which its policies would derive?  Where are the policies for decisive change?  The right’s vision is still the measure of virtually everything in our politics.  Progressives are left perennially on the defensive, when bold leadership could easily put them on the offensive.

Rudd is now facing an aggressive opponent in Tony Abbott.  There are those who regard Abbott as too regressive to be electable.  However Abbott is not afraid to call things as he sees them, and he will offer leadership, however flawed his vision might be.  Like Obama, Rudd has left a vacuum of vision, and like the Republicans, Abbott can fill it.

Rudd’s standing in the polls is still high, but he has set himself up by being too much like his opponents.  Abbott may not win the next election, but if he gains ground, Labor’s response is likely to be to coopt some of his policies.  Just as Beazley et al. failed in 2001 by trying to be Howard-lite, Rudd can fail trying to be Abbott-lite.  If people want a clear vision they may go for the real Abbott, instead of the confected, visionless, expedient power-grubbers that the once-proud Labor Party has become.  We could end up with Palin in Washington and Abbott in Canberra.  Don’t laugh.

1 thought on “Where is the Bold Leadership?

  1. Tony Kevin

    A serious, well-thought-through piece. I agree with Geoff’s abnalysis that the threat to Labor government from Abbott is real – I hope Kevin Rudd’s strategic advisers read this correspondence thread.

    To take one example – climate change – if Rudd opts for a minimalist 5% ETS decisoon , or stays with the undedided wide ramge of choice between 5 and 25% which is a non-decision, he will be giving Abbott and the climate denialists command of the game – they will frame the public climate change debate around the false denialist claim that the climate change science is conflicted, which has already seduced parts of the mainstream media.

    Rudd can only regain the initiative on climate policy by boldly opting for the intermediate 15% ETS positkion, on the argument that Copenhagen was a partial success. Otherwise climate change will be a real area of weakness for Labor in the next election. Please listen up here, Kevin!

    Tony Kevin, author of ‘Crunch Time’ [Scribe, September 2009]



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