"Although it seems unlikely that Obama would have passed up the entire Race & Class in Marxism panel," writes Kurtz, "it's easy to imagine him dashing over to catch [John] Conyers's talk and then moving back to the session on race and class." There's a catch, of course. "Obviously, we can't know Obama's movements in detail. The point is that the themes we're discussing were conference-wide."
All of Kurtz's research is presented this way, as excavations from primary sources that tell us who wrote what articles and what happened at various meetings in the history of American socialism. Once his case is made, he explains how close Obama was to it all. It's fascinating, but it doesn't really prove what Kurtz wants it to prove.
His first problem is that so much of his case depends on the power of that magic word socialism. Kurtz benefits from the fact that it causes a full-body freak-out among American voters and politicians, with images of gulags, bread lines, and Red Dawn. (There's a Red Dawn remake coming soon in which the Cuban and Russian soldiers are replaced by Chinese ones, so the magic's not fading.) And now that no one looks at you funny for calling a Democrat a "socialist," a conservative can win a debate by saying he wants to follow the Constitution while his opponent wants to follow Marx. The December 2010 unemployment rate is proof that Marx is wrong and Madison is right. Debate over.
But it isn't so simple. You can oppose a policy because you're a radical who wants to bring down the government. You can also oppose a policy because it's rotten. Kurtz calls out one socialist group for "one of the first campaigns against bank 'red-lining,' paving the way for ACORN's fateful attack on the mortgage industry decades later." Yes, socialists were among the opponents of a policy introduced by the Federal Housing Administration that discouraged loans and investment to minority neighborhoods. They were right about it.
Later, Kurtz wonders "how remarkable would it be if ACORN did in fact have a significant role in precipitating [the financial] crisis." He argues that it does, because ACORN lobbied Congress and the Clinton administration to put Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the subprime business, and because Columbia university sociologists Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward once argued that activists could overwhelm the state by over-registering people for welfare benefits—put it together, and you have the financial crisis, or a version of it that turns the makers of CDOs into bystanders.
This problem comes up again and again. If you look for socialism in Obama's past, you can find it; and if you look for it in his presidency, everything seems like a hammer and sickle. But does this give us a deeper understanding of what the Democrats are up to? Or is socialism a word that, applied to Democrats, makes their policies less popular?
Kurtz sees socialism as the only way to explain Obama's "insistence on pressing an ambitious program of health-care reform during an economic downturn." A simpler explanation could be that he's a liberal Democrat, and liberal Democrats have been trying to do what he did on health care for half a century. Pointing out that some of their ideas came from socialists, and locating the wellsprings of those ideas, is useful history. It helps explain where some of the concepts adopted by liberals come from. What it doesn't explain is how those liberals end up running the place once they're in power.
And that sets up the second problem with Kurtz's book. Since losing the House of Representatives, President Obama has negotiated with Republicans to give them much of what they wanted on tax cuts. A man trained by the best socialists Chicago had to offer has just agreed to let the estate tax sink to its lowest-ever permanent rate. According to Politico's Robert Kuttner, Obama is ready to take a step that was telegraphed when he set up the debt commission and start cutting back Social Security. There's a reason why Beck and the gang focus on Obama's more obscure appointees than on his big-ticket items: The hard left isn't at all satisfied with the big-ticket items. But Kurtz argues that "the best way to understand the president's policies is to see them as a series of steps designed to slowly but surely move the country closer to a socialist ideal."
I've got another theory about Barack Obama. He's a liberal, but he knows who he needs to impress and what they care about. He figured out early on what soothed Hyde Park socialists, and later he figured out how to win over Springfield and Washington Republicans. He's not an unblinking, unrepentant socialist. He's a liberal political hack. He's just been good at knowing how much everyone else likes to obsess over labels.