The Permanent Counterculture

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Obama Administration

Be sure to read Jonathan Chait’s “When Did Liberals Become So Unreasonable?” about how liberals began to dump President Obama even before he took office. But then after you’ve read that, read the Booman:

In the 1930′s and 1940′s, the liberal left was the intellectual soul of Democratic Party. It had to cobble together an uneasy coalition of socialists and Jim Crow Democrats and city bosses and ward heelers. But liberals were in charge of the big things, like implementing the New Deal, creating the United Nations, and setting up the Bretton Woods system. …

… But then came Vietnam. That stupid war destroyed the liberal consensus. It created a counterculture. And that counterculture is where liberal legitimacy went to die. You cannot be a governing philosophy at the same time that you are countercultural movement. A countercultural movement is set up to oppose power. It is a critique of a country, not a platform for governing a country. And that’s where the left has been stuck since about 1968. This is something distinct from Will Rogers’s old saw about “I’m not a member of any organized political party, I’m a Democrat!” This isn’t just about herding cats. It’s a fundamental flaw in the progressive predisposition.

Yes. Governing is about enacting what is possible. Franklin Roosevelt made very un-liberal deals with southern segregationists to get his legislation passed. Today’s Left went ballistic when Obama invited Evangelical pastor Rick Warren to speak at his inauguration.

I keep saying this, but President is the most progressive president since LBJ. What he’s enacted so far is much more liberal than anything the Clinton or Carter administrations even attempted. Chait documents this. Yet in liberal circles one is not allowed to point this out. It’s like everyone had an anti-Obama microchip planted in their brains.

Relating this to the OWS movement — one of my frustrations with the OWSers is that it is trying to be a popular-democratic movement and a counterculture at the same time, and I don’t think it can be both. I just read this on Salon:

The image of huge crowds of everyday people confronting legions of cops protecting the conclaves of the rich and powerful who run the world is more powerful than any words. It would draw the battle lines between the 99% and the 1% in the streets. And it is ultimately in the streets, not in meetings or conferences, where the political struggle will be played out as they have been from the French Revolution more than two centuries ago to the Egyptian Revolution today. Holding public space is key.

That’s fine, but I don’t think this lady, for example, is all that “everyday.”

You want the guy watching on television from Dubuque, Iowa, who is worried about his job and his debt load and doesn’t like his daughter’s boyfriend and goes to the Shiloh Baptist Church every Sunday to be able to relate to what you are doing. Maybe he has a lot of conservative social views, but he might still relate to economic injustice issues, if someone could make the effort to relate to him a little bit.

The counterculture should have been left in the 1960s.

Update: A writer in the Economist suggests that liberals are disappointed in Obama only because his campaign rhetoric set their expectations too high. That’s some of it, maybe, but it doesn’t account for the degree of Obama-hating on the Left. There is something much more pathological going on.

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27 Comments

27 Comments

  1. Jymn  •  Nov 21, 2011 @4:51 pm

    Perhaps it is the ‘counterculture’ that keeps the Democrats honest. Otherwise, it would be all Blue Democrats caving to Republicans. It is Obama who sanctioned Occupy. Not the other way around. The dream of a middle is fraught with dangers, many of which Obama has been forced to confront only because of dirty frickkin’ hippies. We need all types on the left.

    I’m no Obama hater but I do think his presidency has been richer for the activism of those who you decry. It is up to Obama to ignore the ‘counterculture’ if he feels he can make more progressive improvements to the country without them. As a Buddhist, you should know this. We all have a voice, even the unruly, the unkept and the loud voices.

  2. ShortWoman  •  Nov 21, 2011 @5:07 pm

    How interesting that you see Obama as the most progressive president since LBJ, when I see him as being more conservative than Nixon. Nixon after all signed of on the EPA and thought we should have universal health care (not mandatory insurance coverage that will keep insurance companies wildly profitable)!

  3. maha  •  Nov 21, 2011 @5:21 pm

    Perhaps it is the ‘counterculture’ that keeps the Democrats honest. Otherwise, it would be all Blue Democrats caving to Republicans.

    Who says anyone is keeping the Democrats honest? And I reject the notion of a counterculture/Blue Dog dichotomy. Genuinely progressive legislators such as Bernie Sanders and Barnie Frank hardly strike me as “countercultural.”

    We need all types on the left.

    Nobody says otherwise. Look, I’m 60 years old. Way back when I was as much into tie-die and happenings as anyone was my age. In the 1960s the counterculture was a healthy reaction to the 1950s. But it’s time to let it go now. It no longer serves a useful function.

    We all have a voice, even the unruly, the unkept and the loud voices.

    When the unruly and unkempt hog the megaphone and shout down the sensible, I’d say that’s a problem.

  4. maha  •  Nov 21, 2011 @5:23 pm

    How interesting that you see Obama as the most progressive president since LBJ, when I see him as being more conservative than Nixon.

    Some of us do see things more clearly than others. Say hi to the rest of your fellow knee-jerkers, btw. You would do well to read Chait’s essay, all the way through, if you haven’t (and I’m betting you haven’t).

  5. paradoctor  •  Nov 21, 2011 @6:22 pm

    Take comfort of sorts in this: the Right also has a permanent counterculture, a faction of irrational purism, where the Right’s legitimacy goes to die. The difference is timing; the 60′s versus now.

  6. Curmudgeon  •  Nov 21, 2011 @6:59 pm

    [Sigh]

    Maha, have you ever talked to a right-wing salt of the earth type? All they are capable of repeating is right wing talking points. There’s no ‘there’ there to find common ground.

    The guy who goes to Shiloh Baptist Church every Sunday is almost certainly an authoritarian personality type. They cannot be reasoned with by normal people any more than a chipmunk can reason with a wolf.

    The guy who goes to Shiloh Baptist Church every Sunday is worried about his job and his debt load, but he’s as sure as the sun will rise that he’s poor because capital gains taxes are too high, because the death tax destroys small businesses, because abortion is still legal, and because he can’t lynch ‘niggers’ like in the good old days. Propose actually doing something about income inequality to the guy who goes to Shiloh Baptist Church every Sunday and he’ll laugh at you and tell you to have a bath and get a job.

  7. maha  •  Nov 21, 2011 @7:14 pm

    Maha, have you ever talked to a right-wing salt of the earth type? All they are capable of repeating is right wing talking points. There’s no ‘there’ there to find common ground.

    I’m not talking about right-wingers. I’m talking about the apolitical guy who is probably an independent. He may not agree with the progressive agenda across the board, but he’s hurting, and he might be reachable on economic justice issues.

    I’m from the rural midwest; I know my people. They aren’t all stupid. It’s just that most of them never hear any political messages but right-wing ones.

    The Rabid Right, the people who will vote for right-wing causes no matter what, is maybe 25 to 30 percent of voters. But people who self-identify as “liberals” or “progressives” are an even smaller group. That’s a big chunk of Americans who aren’t necessarily “one of us” but who aren’t “one of them” either. But, according to you, we’re not supposed to even talk to anyone outside of our little 20 percent, because they’re stupid?

    Look, the slogan is “We are the 99%.” Well, the guy I’m talking about is part of that. One of the reasons progressives are so marginalized in this country is that too many think the majority of Americans are stupid. Well, how can we presume to speak for “everyday people” or “the 99 percent” if we think they are stupid and brainwashed and not worthy of consideration?

  8. Bill Bush  •  Nov 21, 2011 @7:16 pm

    Have you seen as many OWSers interviewed as you saw Teabaggers a couple of years ago? I haven’t. I can’t identify any spokesmen, and that crowd desperately needs some highly articulate folks in front of cameras. One winger site today proudly showed three “OWS” guys pooping on the street/a flag/a police car. Those photos cry out for some more representative spokesmen to represent the group’s ideas to the general public.

    I was never a demonstrator, but at 63 I am about ready to cross that off my bucket list, just as soon as daily life eases up, in maybe about 2 weeks. I think I’ll contact a group about 40 miles away and see what is up. But please, no damn finger-wagging. It is time for OWS to move to its next stage format for effectiveness, I think. That gets back to those articulate spokesmen.

  9. c u n d gulag  •  Nov 21, 2011 @7:41 pm

    Some of the left’s blind hatred of Obama comes from, I think, two things:
    1. Unrequited love.
    2. An unrequited mutual suicide pact.
    In our little drama, the Jane Hamsher’s of the world, the Juliet’s, when Obama, their Romeo, decided NOT to kill himself, figured that he didn’t love them enough to commit political suicide with/for them, and decided to make it their life’s work to spread their hatred to as many people as possible. ‘That BEAST! He didn’t love me enough to kill himself!’

    They forget that, with Pelosi’s House, and her ability to tame the idiotic Red Dogs (’cause there ain’t nothin’ blue ’bout ‘em), and with a Senate where you had to depend of self-satisfied Red Dog blow-hard pricks like Ben F’in Nelson, Joe F’in Lieberman, and Even F’in Byah, among F’in others, Obama was able to get a lot of good legislation passed.
    Ah! But it wasn’t PERFECT!
    And so they decided to make the imperfect, and the man responsible, the enemy of the good. They decided to try to make him ‘the enemy of the people’
    And so, because he didn’t fight to the death for single-payer (something that would NEVER have been passed in the present political environment), and instead compromised, he didn’t want to commit political suicide for/with them, and so, he’s the enemy because he didn’t love them enough to kill himself with/for them – the BEAST!!!
    There is no greater hate than that of a lover scorned – one who’s turned that love upside down and inside out, and twisted it into a hatred that will only go away when one or the other is dead.
    The right doesn’t have a monopoly on sick, twisted, f’in assholes.
    It’s close.
    But it ain’t a monopoly.

  10. Davis X. Machina  •  Nov 21, 2011 @7:50 pm

    It’s seventy years older than ’68. And it’s not in just the US.

    Deep down inside we still can’t decide if letting Alexandre Millerand enter the Waldeck-Rousseau cabinet is the correct line or not. Or choose between Bernstein and Kautsky. Or whether Labour should refrain from running candidates in Liberal constituencies.

    Nihil novi sub sole.

  11. tom B  •  Nov 21, 2011 @8:17 pm

    “Have you seen as many OWSers interviewed as you saw Teabaggers a couple of years ago?”

    Given who was funding the whole fraudulent Tea Party “movement”, are you surprised?

    Would you be surprised if I told you the “usual suspects” are funding up the coffers of the so-called TP-ers in Congress– not that this will save them from being one-termers.

    Interesting chart from a week ago:
    http://www.ritholtz.com/blog/2011/11/occupy-wall-street-vs-tea-party/

    Ritholtz is one of the VERY few financial bloggers worth reading.

  12. uncledad  •  Nov 21, 2011 @10:35 pm

    “Yet in liberal circles one is not allowed to point this out. It’s like everyone had an anti-Obama microchip planted in their brains”

    Agreed, even during the 2008 primary many Clinton supporters chided Obama as too centrist? I never understood this, Hillary is the establishment power broker, twas Bubba that signed NAFTA, Welfare reform and all the Gramm–Leach–Bliley tom-foolery that led to the crash of 08. Yet it’s Obama who is the establishment centrist, the tool of wall street? One has to ask themselves is some of the left’s irrational characterization of Obama rooted in the same ignorance as the right? Sometimes I wonder. Or is it as you describe a matter of the permanent counter-culture? Or maybe it’s a little of both.

  13. Bill Bush  •  Nov 21, 2011 @10:38 pm

    All of that goes without saying. But they have met and met and wiggled their fingers and created piles of statements/positions/discussions/ideas/whatever and the stuff is not getting out effectively. There is a constituency out there that is looking for something I think OWS has. For a while yet the suspense of “What are they going to do?” will serve them, but thery’ve got to reach out to the people who will never attend a camp/demonstration, because growth of a depth of understanding has to start spreading. They are currently ignoring the antis, but someday they must deal with the ‘baggers/Faux.

  14. Kyle  •  Nov 21, 2011 @11:31 pm

    You cannot be a governing philosophy at the same time that you are countercultural movement.

    That doesn’t seem to have stopped the Repuke party from campaigning to run the government when they have an ideological hatred of the government.

  15. maha  •  Nov 21, 2011 @11:41 pm

    There is a constituency out there that is looking for something I think OWS has.

    Yes. Unfortunately, too many OWSers are like Curmudgeon, above, who don’t see a need to outreach. But you can’t claim to be for the people while you’re looking down your nose at the people.

  16. Doug Hughes  •  Nov 22, 2011 @12:58 am

    There’s a cultural gag we old folks get – Dad has the steering wheel in a death grip – through clenched teeth he declares to the kids in the back seat, “NO!!!- We’re NOT there yet!” This sums up the relationship between the liberal politician, the driver, and the political idealist, who is the brat in the back seat.

    Political reality is grim for the idealist (who stays in perpetual denial) because you NEVER get there. There is no perfect justice, nothing is completely fair, absolute equality is impossible and undesirable. In politics, there are no final answers – ONLY TRENDS. Trends for the better, trends for the worse. But there is no final destination of social nirvana.

    That’s not to suggest the IDEAL of social justice is flawed. The IDEAL is the beacon you steer by – it’s an indispensable tool of navigation. But you NEVER get there. If in your lifetime, you help your family, your community, your state or your country to see, to share and go in the direction of a noble ideal, you lived in good times, and your life was not lived in vain.

  17. grok  •  Nov 22, 2011 @1:21 am

    That doesn’t seem to have stopped the Repuke party from campaigning to run the government when they have an ideological hatred of the government.

    But the Republicans DON’T have an ideological hatred of the government. They have a core ideological hatred of taxation that helps non-white people. When they are in government, that’s the part they cut out, the rest they enjoy. That’s the nub of it. nothing more to it than that. The inconsistencies and incoherence in their narratives lie in their inability to fully articulate it: they just can’t come right out and say it because the voters on the margins with run and they will be left with only the core ideological hatred, which is decidedly not large enough to win even a vote for dog-catcher.

    Regarding what Maha wrote: Chait and Booman both write trenchant and insightful pieces, but they both miss the mark. Booman comes closest, circling around the 60′s as the shift and I largely agree with him though I don’t see ‘counterculture’ only fractured cultures trying to negotiate. Chait goes all the way back to pre-dixiecrat America, which means he’s talking about an entirely different Democratic party, one that has since largely shed it’s racists (whom the Republican party later gladly embraced) and therefore operates on different principles.

    Chait misses the 60′s as the turning point because he dismisses LBJ by reducing his term in office as simply “Vietnam”, eliding the true birth of the messianic wing of the Democratic party. But LBJ wasn’t hated, by liberals, for Vietnam but rather for not being either JFK or RFK. 1968 was a pivotal year because both RFK and MLK died that year, from assassination, leaving many liberals bereft with grief and awash in what has come to be a ornate and by now well inculcated sense of ‘what could have been…’ On top of this the already well-worn grief for JFK and horror at the repeated assassinations left a traumatized left.

    So the trauma of the left simmered after 1968 while the corruption of the right continued apace: Nixon and Watergate; Reagan and Iran/Contra (in which, don’t let anybody tell you differently, George H W Bush figured prominently), false impeachment in ’98, just about anything you can point to in the George W Bush administration, and current efforts by congressional republicans to keep the economy in the tank in order to oust Obama. The years since 1968 has been marked by unprecedented corruption, almost all of which on the part of the Republicans, and rather feckless cooperation on the part of Democrats: Carter let the pardon of Nixon go without a struggle; no significant punishment of anyone significant for Iran/Contra; the Republicans impeached Clinton on the flimsiest of motives; The entire George W Bush administration, all of whom should be warming the benches at the Hague right now. Every. Last. One.

    Inside this period of time, with all this caustic melange of messianism, grief, rage and impotence, the democratic party has never ever nominated anyone close to LBJ again. It’s all been another search for RFK and a constant replay of 1968: what might be ALWAYS morphs into what could have been; What could have been if Carter lost to Kennedy in 1980; what could have been if Carter beat Reagan. This sense of ‘what could have been has greatly intensified: What could have been if Gore beat Bush… and then in 2004, what could have been if Wes Clark/Howard Dean/John Edwards got the nomination instead of Kerry. And in 2008, the watchword was PUMA… for ‘party unity my ass’… in the latest iteration of ‘what could have been’, starring Hillary Clinton.

    But, in substance, style and, perhaps most especially, temperament, every single nominee for the Democrats has been nearly identical: Barack Obama isn’t all that different, politically, from John Kerry, Al Gore, Bill Clinton, Walter Mondale and Jimmy Carter. Even the also-rans, like Ted Kennedy in 1980, and Bill Bradley in 2000, match this profile: They are all liberal in ideology but conservative in temperament and process. Clinton and his constant ‘triangulation’ were merely the most transparent in this, but they are all somewhat technocratic, rational, consensus building, sober-minded and careful men.

    So, in light of the sameness of the nominees as well as the background of grief and rage, in what way could Obama NOT disappoint? It is inevitable. If Hillary had won in ’08, we’d be having this exact same conversation about her.

    We have met the problem, and it is us.

  18. Mobius Strip  •  Nov 22, 2011 @3:45 am

    This debate seems familiar somehow. Oh yeah…

    … If there be any in this assembly, any dear friend of
    Caesar’s, to him I say, that Brutus’ love to Caesar
    was no less than his. If then that friend demand
    why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer:
    –Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved
    Rome more. Had you rather Caesar were living and
    die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live
    all free men? As Caesar loved me, I weep for him;
    as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was
    valiant, I honour him: but, as he was ambitious, I
    slew him.
    ….
    …Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
    I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
    The evil that men do lives after them;
    The good is oft interred with their bones;
    So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
    Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
    If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
    And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.
    Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest–
    For Brutus is an honourable man;
    So are they all, all honourable men–
    Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral.
    He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
    But Brutus says he was ambitious;
    And Brutus is an honourable man.
    ….

    I liked it better the first time.

  19. maha  •  Nov 22, 2011 @7:01 am

    That doesn’t seem to have stopped the Repuke party from campaigning to run the government when they have an ideological hatred of the government.

    First, Republicans don’t govern. They cannibalize. They exploit. They kill anything that’s useful an wholesome and suck the bones dry. Second, the Republicans do not do counterculture. They see themselves (falsely, I would argue) as the preservers of traditional culture, standing against the “liberal” urge to move culture forward and shake up old systems.

  20. maha  •  Nov 22, 2011 @7:04 am

    grok — thanks for the comment. Interesting.

  21. erinyes  •  Nov 22, 2011 @7:50 am

    Very good, Grok.
    I like the way you laid out the path.
    As far as the left’s dissapointment with Obama goes, I believe it’s because we’ve been promised a pony, but the pony turns out to be just a photo of a pony.Just pray to God and wish upon a star, and one day your pony will appear……….
    Reality is a bitch.
    A president IS NOT a king.I realize that. A president and his court have (political)debts to pay, and this is a problem
    What irks me (and this is NOT about Obama only) is the constant planning and prepartation for war- against everybody.
    I hear voices on both sides of the political realm beating the drums for war on Iran.
    If not all out war, sanctions ( an act of war) or “surgical strikes “on nuclear facilities, which is an oxymoron if there ever was one.”All options” remain “on trhe table”.
    That sounds good to some folks, but imagine if two neighbors had a beef, and wne walks out, chambers a shot gun shell and says “ALL OPTIONS ARE ON THE TABLE!!!”
    I hear people talking about bombing Syria, like dropping bombs on people is no big deal.
    The latest move is into the Western Pacific to counter the military rise of China- which is the epitomy of insanity.This is being marketed as opening up markets.
    The “markets” that are being opened are the ones for weapons and warriors.
    Things are starting to heat up in the South China Sea over the resources around the contested Spratley Islands.
    The right is worried that China is building aircraft carriers and a “blue water navy”,
    One fast attack nuke sub can wipe out a whole fleet, but more weapons means more money and jobs.
    As far as Hillary goes, she IMHO, really showed her colors when she expressed her glee over the gruesome death of Kadaffy.

    I have tons of empathy for the President; he took on a monumental task in the worst of times, and people on both sides seem happy to trash talk. I think this is simply a symptom of the disease rampant in our culture of instant gratification.
    The President “PRESIDES” over the executive branch, and it appears that the executive branch gets it’s marching orders from a source that has a path laid out, one that wobbles a bit to the left some years, but ALWAYS goes just a bit more to the right, kind of like swimming with one flipper.
    The advantage Obama has, is that the Republicans are one big freak show, and the Democrats won’t “primary” him.Obama may be stuck in the WH for 4 more years.
    (notice I didn’t say we’ll be stuck with him?)
    “The floggings will continue until morale improves”
    What irks me is the failure to prosecute criminals in the finance sector who damned destroyed the country, and no accountability for the hideous criminals in the Bush administration, and in particular, the monsters in the Neocon cabal.They remain fat and happy.

  22. Felicity  •  Nov 22, 2011 @2:36 pm

    It is pathological for no other reason than it can’t be explained. I have been wondering, suppose Obama came out in support of the OWS (and certainly made a statement condemning the pepper spray attack.) Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy (sort of) and Johnson came out in support of the Civil Rights Movement. At the time, they were definitely putting their political careers in jeopardy.

    Obama may be intelligent, may be in support of democratic ideals, but Obama seems to be (painfully) silent when it comes to letting us know that he supports what we’re trying to do – rescue our democracy from those who are committed to destroying it. That has got to anger the Left. If he’s one of us, if he agrees with us, say so.

  23. kathleen  •  Nov 22, 2011 @6:12 pm

    Grok: You couldn’t be more right in my 66 year old opinion. Great piece!

    As a woman from Hawaii with mixed race children and grandchildren, not to mention nieces, etc., I have to say that in the end, no matter how you don’t want to see it, people who hate Obama are racists.

  24. kathleen  •  Nov 22, 2011 @6:19 pm

    ….er, sorry for cutting myself off so abruptly…

    …just wanted to add that, I also don’t know any poor people of any color who don’t support Obama. But thanks to all the Repugnacans as well as all the politically correct media…the non white world is able to see so clearly the racism in this country. I can’t help but think that this is a good thing in the long run.

  25. Gary Singular  •  Nov 22, 2011 @7:36 pm

    It has been interesting to see the (predicted) split in the progressive blogosphere since 2008 into camps: the “Obama” partisans, and the “principle” partisans.

    The latter note that, in most of the key areas for which they opposed “Baby Doc” Bush, Obama has continued and extended the same policies. They are disappointed, and disinclined to vote for such a man.

    The former say, “Well, he couldn’t help it, he’s the hostage of an intractable opposition, he’s doing the best that could be done, now shut up and stop criticising him ’cause that only helps the bad guys when we need to work for Obama’s re-election.”

    The former ask, “Why should we vote for a guy who is at best ineffectual and at worst outright deceitful?” The latter reply only, “You can’t expect magic, now shut up and get behind our guy or someone you hate more will be elected.” The former ask, “This is the choice? Someone who will slowly implement the policies we hate, or someone who will quickly implement them?” The latter seem geniunely unable to comprehend the point, like right-wingers who believe the only possible motivation for OWS protesters is envy of their betters.

    To “principle” partisans, the “Obama” partisans in their support of their guy seem identical to the “American exceptionalism” partisans in foreign affairs, in that the actions the latter two support brand them not as the Good Guys, but as merely the Other Guys.

  26. maha  •  Nov 22, 2011 @9:21 pm

    The latter note that, in most of the key areas for which they opposed “Baby Doc” Bush, Obama has continued and extended the samhttp://www.mahablog.com/wp-admin/edit-comments.php#comments-forme policies. They are disappointed, and disinclined to vote for such a man.

    And the former note that anyone who actually believes that is (a) grossly misinformed and (b) possibly demented.

    Go away.

  27. Doug Hughes  •  Nov 22, 2011 @11:00 pm

    Gary – I have a list of ‘real’ mistakes President Obama has actually made. You are heavy on hate and short on specific factual complaints. But I have a second list. Affordable Health Care. GM is still around with unions. ‘Don’t Ask’ is history. We will nearly double required mileage for cars. That will be equal to cutting our oil consumption in half. Obama told the USSC to their faces that ‘Citizens’ was a bad call. He told Ryan to his face that as president, Obama will not privatize Medicare.

    Here’s reality in two questions? What presidential candidate do you like BETTER than President Obama? (If that person hasn’t declared his/her candidacy – they are NOT candidates.They are your fantasy.) Second question. Is your candidate electable? My guess is – you don’t have a real (announced) candidate and all your bellyaching is a waste of electrons in this medium.

    I agree with Maha with one caveat. Go away, until you can recognize reality.



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