There was one moment in the Frank Rich-Fran Lebowitz talk a few weeks ago at The Smith Center that, for me, at least, cut right to the bruised heart of the electoral freak show now spazzing toward its close — enough that it's still on my mind. It was a small, quick moment, and I'm not sure how many of us registered its significance; the two performers certainly didn't seem to. It was easy to lose it amid the electrically funny moments that evening, or the startlingly truthful moments (Lebowitz on right-wing angst: “After four years in the White House, it turns out Obama is still black!”), or the moments of serious Dispensing of Wisdom, when you could feel Rich furrow his brow from 20 rows back.
Still, even as the Frank & Fran Liberal Salvation Show did its best to levitate the faithful, out in the darkness beyond the campfire you could see the red eyes of the Tea Party, sense the evil lurk of Karl Rove, smell the massive cash dumps of Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers. (Thanks, Citizens United!) And so when a woman in the audience stood up and, her voice quiet and wavering, asked, In the face of all that money and influence, what can the rest of us do?, she put the skunk on the table in a way nothing else did.
All evening, Rich and Lebowitz had touted getting involved as the antidote to conservative guff: You gotta vote, watch local government, be the change. My notes don't record their verbatim response to the woman, but they more or less reiterated that same message and moved on. Yet their civics-class boilerplate didn't really dispel the bleak vision embedded in her question: a vision of democracy as a scale, on one side of which is heaped the $100 million Adelson has said he’ll spend to unseat the president, and on the other side of which is ... her participation?
Welcome to the Citizens United States of America.
In the face of all that money and influence, what can the rest of us do? Our vote is all we have.
Given all that, what am I to make of Barack Obama in 2012?
He's certainly smaller than he was in 2008. Four years ago, I glugged the hope and change along with so many others, and the only reason I don't feel sheepish about it now is that I'm still amazed I lived to see a black man elected president. Years later I recall the shiver of casting my little vote on behalf of pushing history forward.
Since then, he’s racked up an impressive series of disappointments, from the National Defense Authorization Act to his deadly drone-strike program to the slow recovery to — well, you know the full litany of his shortcomings, real and imagined, since Karl Rove jams it down your craw every commercial break. Obama frittered his mandate in pointless bipartisan gestures, when even those of us in the cheap seats could see that the right wasn't going to play along. He didn't do this, he didn't do that and so on. The audacity of hope? How about the hope of audacity? Rove and his ads may be full of shit, but their gist isn’t entirely wrong: Obama isn't our dream date anymore.
Still, as I sit here, slammed and jammed by increasingly devious and hysterical super-PAC commercials, every distortion underlining the urgency of the woman's question that night — in the face of all that money and influence, what can the rest of us do? — a vote for Obama still seems like the best answer we're gonna get by sundown Tuesday.
It's not like he's failed to earn my support. He ended DADT; bailed out the auto industry; is (finally) winding down George Bush's disastrous wars; gave the order to kill bin Laden against the counsel of many advisors. It maybe have been a gimpy version of health-care reform that got passed, but it still means I can insure my kids until they're 26. These are good things. (How much more he might have done without a mindlessly obstructionist House, we’ll never know.)
But here's the deal-sealer for me: A vote for Obama is a vote against the Citizens United vision of democracy as a corporate perk; against the corner-office mentality that sees the bosses as "job-creators" and the job-holders as necessary evils.
A vote for Obama is a vote against Sheldon Adelson thinking it's all right to buy an election.
A vote for Obama is a vote against billionaires who threaten their employees' jobs if the president is re-elected. That's just complete bullshit.
Remember Romney's words: Corporations are people, too, my friend.
Now, I know Obama has a ton of Wall Street money behind him; there are Democratic interests slamming serious cash into the election, too. I’m not blind to the way this works. Yet Obama seems to operate according to an agenda of his own devising, whatever you think of it. Romney, on the other hand, a pure creature of the Citizens United era, runs on an operating system programmed by the 1 percenters who are, finally, his peers and his people.
The historian Garry Wills wrote (about George W. Bush, but it’s doubly applicable here) that you don’t just vote for a candidate. You also vote for the people who are at the core of his ability to govern. What are the agendas of the people Romney will be beholden to if he wins? You know the answer.
In case that doesn’t convince you, let me add two more words: Supreme Court.