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OPINION | OTHERS SAY: Agenda riven by centrists

by Will Bunch The Philadelphia Inquirer Inquirer | December 1, 2021 at 3:11 a.m.

Long ago, in a United States that now seems far, far away, the coming-to-America story of Saule Omarova would be hailed as a stirring endorsement of our nation as a beacon for democracy-seekers.

Born in 1966 under the Communist dictatorship of the USSR and raised under her Kazakh grandmother who had lost the rest of her family to Stalinist purges, Omarova grew up with a passion for Pink Floyd and political dissent that caused her to stay in the U.S. after the Soviet regime collapsed while she was a grad student in Wisconsin.

Not surprisingly, Omarova's work as an American academic hasn't focused on overthrowing capitalism but on making it work better for everyday citizens. Inspired by the 2008 economic meltdown, she's most recently proposed a scheme that would allow the Federal Reserve to take on the big banks' monopoly on private deposits that caused a credit crunch.

Her research and resume -- she even worked for a time in the administration of George W. Bush -- made Omarova seemingly an inspiring pick for President Joe Biden, who tapped her to become the first woman and first nonwhite person to oversee banking as comptroller of the currency.

But Omarova's feel-good saga was lost in translation when she hit the Senate for her confirmation process. Instead, the hearing became a public demonstration of everything that's wrong with American politics in 2021 -- beginning with Republicans who hid their unbridled support for the monopolistic power for Big Banking behind completely twisting Omarova's life story in the worst display of red-baiting on Capitol Hill since Joe McCarthy.

It started with Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania -- Wall Street's man in the Senate -- demanding a paper on Marxism required by her Moscow State University professors "in the original Russian language." . It devolved into Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana telling the nominee, "I don't know whether to call you professor or comrade."

But what happened next is much more revealing about what's broken with American politics, and it arguably matters a lot more as the nation backslides into 2022 midterms that could shake democracy to its core. Because if you think that Senate Democrats rose up to this shameful display of modern McCarthyism by rallying around Biden's nominee or her ideas that banking should work for the middle class, then you don't know the soul of today's Democratic Party.

Instead, a so-called cadre of centrist Democrats put the dagger in Omarova's political fortunes. In a scenario where all 50 Democratic votes were needed, five of these so-called moderates -- including Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona -- have reportedly told the White House that they can't support Omarova, which will kill her nomination.

The torpedoing of Omarova by her own party is hardly an aberration. Instead, it felt like the exclamation point on a recurring theme in Year One of the Biden administration -- seeing a new president's determination to turn around American politics to help the struggling middle class be either slow-walked or increasingly blocked by an entrenched sliver of pro-Wall Street and pro-donor-class Democrats.

We've watched this process writ large as the centerpiece of the Biden agenda -- the formerly $3.5 trillion social welfare and climate change package -- has been stripped of popular items such as free community college and has seen other key features sharply whittled down. The cuts happened not because of Republicans, but because of conservative Democrats like Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who with his family literally owns a coal company, or Rep. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, whose $450,000 in donations from private equity firms last cycle was more than any House member, including any pro-business Republican.

Even at a much lower $1.5 trillion price tag, it's not clear these divided Democrats can approve the package.

There are two big problems here. The obstructionism of centrist Democrats has mostly squandered what could have been a brief two-year window -- given the dysfunctional cycle of American politics -- to take meaningful action on climate change and enact the kind of policies on higher education or paid family leave that are routine in every other developed nation. That's bad news for the future of a civil U.S. society and the health of the planet.

But the schizophrenia of today's Democrats -- watching Biden and his progressive allies run full speed at the football of change, only to watch the Democrat-in-name-only Lucys like Gottheimer and Sinema yank it away again and again -- has also left the average voter utterly confused about what the party really stands for. I don't blame them. On many days, I wonder myself.

Now, in failing to defend Omarova against the brutal McCarthyism of her Republican critics, the Democrats' centrist wing is hitting a moral low to coincide with their lack of political foresight -- as the party melts down and an opposing party that no longer believes in democracy is again advancing.

In the smoldering ruins of the near future, maybe the right question for these Quislings who would rather save JPMorgan Chase than the American Experiment is this: Are you now, or have you ever been, a centrist Democrat?

Will Bunch is national columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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