Van Jones: A Moment of Truth For Liberal Institutions in the Veal Pen
I first met Van Jones when he was honored last year by the Campaign for America’s Future at their gala dinner. He was being swarmed by all of the liberal institutional elite, who just could not be more full of praise for the impressive environmental leader and prison reform organizer. Everybody wanted Van Jones on their board. Everyone wanted him at their fundraisers. Everyone wanted a piece of his formidable limelight.
Now he’s been thrown under the bus by the White House for signing his name to a petition expressing something that 35% of all Democrats believed as of 2007 — that George Bush knew in advance about the attacks of 9/11. Well, that and calling Republicans "assholes." I’m pretty sure that if you search through the histories of every single liberal leader at the CAF dinner that night, they have publicly said that and worse.
So where are all the statements defending Van Jones by those who were willing to exploit him when it served their purpose? Why aren’t they standing up and defending one of their own, who has done nothing that probably the majority of people in the Democratic party haven’t done at one time or another? Is he no longer "one of their own?"
Someone asked me over the weekend to be more explicit about what the term "veal pen" means:
The veal crate is a wooden restraining device that is the veal calf’s permanent home. It is so small (22" x 54") that the calves cannot turn around or even lie down and stretch and is the ultimate in high-profit, confinement animal agriculture.(1) Designed to prevent movement (exercise), the crate does its job of atrophying the calves’ muscles, thus producing tender "gourmet" veal.
About 14 weeks after their birth, the calves are slaughtered. The quality of this "food," laden with chemicals, lacking in fiber and other nutrients, diseased and processed, is another matter. The real issue is the calves’ experience. During their brief lives, they never see the sun or touch the Earth. They never see or taste the grass. Their anemic bodies crave proper sustenance. Their muscles ache for freedom and exercise. They long for maternal care. They are kept in darkness except to be fed two to three times a day for 20 minutes.
Soon after the election, the Administration began corralling the big liberal DC interest groups into a variety of organizations and communication networks through which they telegraphed their wishes — into a virtual veal pen. The 8:45 am morning call co-hosted by the "liberal" Center for American Progress, Unity 09, and Common Purpose are just a few of the overt ways that the White House controls its left flank and maintains discipline.
My own experience with the Veal Pen came indirectly, when some of them had the temerity to launch a campaign against Blue Dogs. They were rebuked and humiliated in front of their peers as a lesson to them all at a Common Purpose meeting, which is run by lobbyist Erik Smith. White House communications director Ellen Moran attends. It isn’t an arms-length relationship between these groups and the administration.
A few weeks ago, Rahm Emanuel showed up at a Common Purpose meeting and called these liberal groups "fucking stupid" for going after Blue Dogs on health care and ordered them not to do so any more. Since that time, to the best of my knowledge, none of them have.
These organizations may kid themselves that they’re doing no harm, but that’s not true. They are the institutional liberal validators who telegraph to liberals that there are problems, that things are happening that are not good for them. They are trusted to decode the byzantine rituals of government and let the public know when their interests are not being served, that it’s time to pay attention and start making a racket. When they fail to perform that task, the public is left with a vague feeling of anxiety, intuitively understanding that something is wrong but not knowing who or what to blame.
When the White House met with bankers after the AIG scandal and they said they didn’t want to be criticized for getting huge bonuses paid for by taxpayers, the White House complied and "cooled their rhetoric." The President told the public that Timothy Geithner had been instructed to do everything in his power to claw back those bonuses, and the House passed a bill doing just that. But it died in the Senate.
You remember all those campaigns by the unions, by the online groups, by liberal economics and finance organizations pushing the Senate to take it up?
Yeah, me either.
Which means that the teabaggers were in perfect position to harvest all of the discontent over the bank bailout, and no coherent liberal critique was offered. I heard it over and over again — if you wanted to criticize the White House on financial issues, your institutional funding would dry up instantly. The Obama campaign successfully telegraphed to donors that they should cut off Fund for America, which famously led to its demise. It wasn’t the last time something like that happened — just ask those who were receiving institutional money who criticized the White House and saw their funding cut, at the specific request of liberal institutional leaders who now principally occupy their time by brown nosing friends and former co-workers in the White House.
And so the groups in the DC veal pen stay silent. They leadership gets gets bought off by cocktail parties at the White House while the interests of their members get sold out. How many have openly pushed back against the Administration on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell or DOMA? Well, not many. Most tried to satisfy their LGBT members by outsourcing activism to other organizations, or proving their bona fides by getting involved in the Prop 8 battle that is not directly toxic to the White House. It’s a chickenshit sidestep that betrays their members in the interest of personal gain, which they justify with feeble self-serving palliatives about the importance of "maintaining a seat at the table."
Where are they on health care? Why aren’t they running ads against the AMA, the hospitals, the insurance industry barons who have $700 million in stock options, PhRMA, the device manufacturers and the White House for doing back room deals with all of the above?
Why are they not calling for the White House to release the details of those secret deals?
Because they are participating in those deals, instead of trying to destroy them. Well, that and funneling millions of dollars in pass-throughs to their consultant friends that they are supposed to be spending on the health care fight.
The truth is — they’ve all been sucked into insulating the White House from liberal critique, and protecting the administration’s ability to carry out a neoliberal agenda that does not serve the interests of their members. They spend their time calculating how to do the absolute minimum to retain their progressive street cred and still walk the line of never criticizing the White House.
Liberals are told that the public option is an acceptable sacrifice such that we don’t repeat the 54 seat swing to the GOP after health care failed in 1994. The President told Progressive members of Congress that they should think about the poor Blue Dogs (who by happy coincidence are sucking up all the health care lobbying dollars) who might face tough elections in 2010.
Well, now that you bring it up, let’s talk about 1994. The election came on the heels of NAFTA, which demoralized the liberal base and depressed turnout. Even as the GOP works hard to rile up their teabaggers base and push turnout numbers up for the 2010 midterm, Democrats are watching the public option die and seeing Van Jones thrown into the meat grinder so Blue Cross and the Blue Dogs can get a room. Telling progressives to go Cheney themselves to save the Blue Dogs could have horrendous consequences on downticket races across the country.
So where are the liberal groups in all of this? Van Jones was a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Where are they? As Jeremy Scahill notes, I guess they have better things to do, like argue for more war:
Reading the Center for American Progress‘ new report supporting President Obama’s escalation of the US war against Afghanistan is a very powerful reminder of how much neoliberals and neocons are alike. This, of course, is not some genius observation, particularly since CAP and the neocons are making it hard to miss, what with their love triangle with the war. Indeed, CAP’s launch event for its report, "Sustainable Security in Afghanistan: Crafting an Effective and Responsible Strategy for the Forgotten Front," included a leading neocon, Frederick Kagan and was promoted by William Kristol’s new version of the Project for a New American Century, the Foreign Policy Initiative. So, here is part of what we are seeing unfold: Running parallel to the bi-partisan war machine within the official government is a coordinated campaign in the shadow government — the think tanks. Or, as Naomi Klein describes them, the people paid to think by the makers of tanks. CAPs particular role in this campaign appears to be attempting to sell Obama’s war.
CAP’s John Podesta
is also a partner in the Podesta Group,* his brother’s lobbying shop that is representing WalMart against the Employee Free Choice Act. This morning on Fox & Friends, Podesta wouldn’t say a word in Jones’ defense for doing something no worse than what elected Republican members of Congress do on a daily basis. The message is loud and clear: incur the wrath of the right wing, and you’re on your own.
Wow, is that a way to encourage your team or what.
If these groups, if these liberal leaders, let Jones just hang there while Glenn Beck pounds his chest and celebrates the scalp, we have no liberal institutions. What we have are a bunch of neoliberal enablers who have found a nice comfortable place in the DC establishment that they don’t want to jeopardize, a place on the new K-Street gravy train that they don’t want to lose. Dropping Van Jones from their rolodex is a small price to pay.
If there is going to be a serious progressive movement in this country capable of standing up for health care against an industry that spends $1.4 million a day on lobbying, we can’t just look to the members of the Progressive Caucus and say "hey, you, get something done." They need cover. They need to know that they will be supported. And people like Van Jones who have given their lives to causes we say we value like prison reform and environmental advocacy need to know that they will be defended, and not handed over to Glenn Beck as an acceptable casualty in the battle for K-Street dollars.
So to all you liberal organizations in the "veal pen" — this is your moment of truth. I get all your emails. And the next Common Purpose meeting is probably on Tuesday. If you can’t get it together to at least put out a statement of support for Van Jones and condemn the White House for using him as a sacrificial lamb to right wing extremists that will devour us all if left unchecked, it’s time to add "proudly liberal only when it doesn’t matter" to your logo and be done with it.
* A spokesman for the Center for American Progress says that John Podesta no longer has a financial interest in the Podesta Group.