Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Is Obama a "Fighting Dem"?

Barack Obama has understandably attracted comsiderable attention nationally. I'm a little surprised that he's achieved the name recognition and positive profile he has without establishing himself as a champion of any particular issue. But he has.

Writing in the New York Review of Books, Michael Tomasky describes him as
The Phonemenon 11/30/06 edition; article dated 11/01/06). Noting that Obama's speech to the 2004 Democratic Convention made him an instant national figure, Tomasky writes:

What is at the heart of his appeal? His name, memorable and euphonious, helps. So do his looks—his eyes and face project ease and warmth and sincerity; nothing about them is hard or inscrutable. He comes across, to both African-Americans and whites, as someone who simultaneously epitomizes black advancement and transcends race. But the main reason for his success surely has to do with the central theme of his rhetoric. In the convention speech, as in all his major speeches, Obama aimed far higher than the usual uninspiring Democratic laundry list of health care, good jobs, devotion to Roe v. Wade, and the rest. His subject is our shared civic culture, which he sees as under threat — mostly from the right but also from the left. He believes our red-versus-blue politics of today is positively toxic, and he thinks that our only hope is to rise above it. The theme of [his book] The Audacity of Hope is not how the Democrats can win more elections, or how a certain liberal policy goal can be attained; it is, he writes in the book's early pages, "how we might begin the process of changing our politics and our civic life." He wants a political culture that is, to be sure, liberal in its outlook but does the difficult work of trying to speak to people who don't share liberalism's assumptions (without being accommodationist to conservatives in power; Obama is no Joe Lieberman).
My friend and former professor Bob McElvaine is also keen on Obama's potenital appeal as a Democratic Presidential candidate (An Obama Presidency for Lincoln’s Two-Hundredth Birthday History News Network 09/25/06)

He writes:

The last thing our nation needs in 2008 is another 50-50 election of bitter red/blue division. What America needs is a leader who practices the politics of multiplication rather than division. ...

Given the racial history of our nation, the proposition that a black man could win decisively and bring much of the nation together seems preposterous. But Sen. Obama has proven himself to be a unifier. His is a quintessentially American biography. The child of an immigrant father and an American-born mother, Sen. Obama believes in the American Dream because he has lived it. Diversity is what America is all about, and he is diversity.

Most successful politicians in recent years have sought to widen chasms; Barack Obama seeks to build bridges across them. He speaks of "a politics of hope instead of a politics of fear."
Count me for now as an Obama skeptic. His great appeal seems to be this unifying image he projects. But national unity is a greatly overrated quality. What I mean is that, first of all, democratic elections are and should be about choice. National unity in a Presidential election should mean that the elections are decided in a transparent way based on an honest count of votes. Votes of the voters, that is, not five votes on the Supremem Court.

National unity means that after the Presidential election the losing side accepts the results as legitimate and doesn't try to overthrow the government by illegal means. Preferably, it would also mean that there wouldn't be fist fights in the national legislature afterward, the way there was in the Mexican Parliament yesterday.

But in Mexico's case, many of the "left" candidate's supporters were strongly convinced the election was stolen. When you look at the mass protests, and even the passions in the parliament yesterday, can we honestly say that the American people in 2000 showed as much commitment to democracy as the Mexicans have the last several months? Or more specifically, is the United States really better off, is our democratic and Constitutional system more secure today, because the Democrats were so agreeable and conciliatory about seeking national unity and "closure" after the Scalia Five handed the election to Cheney and Bush?

You can see where I'm going with this. It's one thing to have principled positions combined with a pragmatic ability to cut deal to get important things done, and not let the ideal be the enemy of what can really be accomplished. Think of Lyndon Johnson's career commitment to civil rights.

But Obama's position seems to make compromising the center of his whole appeal. I'd much prefer Democratic leaders who establish that they have a position on important issues that someone might want to compromise over.

What really made me initially an Obama skeptic was his "process" statements about making religion more a part of Democratic appeals. As many liberal bloggers like Atrios have been saying, if you think the Democrats need to "talk more about" something or "articulate a more clear position", then talk about it or articulate a position. Because when you say things along the lines of, "Democrats need to convince the voters that we respect people of faith", that's less a Democratic position than it is an echo of phony Republican accusation that Dems don't respect "people of faith". And that's been the tack he's taken all too often.

That whole argument is kind of hokey to me. Jerry Brown, our new attorney general in California, has been a pro-labor, environmentalist Democrat his entire public career. When he was Governor of California in the late 1970s, he led the successful campaign against one of Howard Jarvis' crackpot initiates to slash and cripple state government by going on television and talking straightforwardly about the practical consequences of the initiative. He closed by opening a Bible and reading some verses from one of the Gospels.

Later in his career, among other things he spent some time working with the late Mother Theresa in India. And he reminded people of that fact in his recent campaign. But so far as I've ever known, he has never spent any time whining about how the Democrats need to do more to appeal to "people of faith" and stop acting so godless.

Plus, look at today's authoritarian Republican Party. Their have been rigidly partisan - and effectively so in many ways - at least since the early 1990s. The last genuinely constructive moment of bipartisan respect and national unity I can remember was the Congressional debate and vote on authorizing Old Man Bush to go to war against Iraq in 1991. It was genuinely high-minded and respectful for the most part. But before the shooting even stopped, the Reps were trying to turn support for the war into a straight-up partisan issue, with Old Man Bush's at-least-passive approval.

The national unity after 9/11 in reality did more harm than good, because the Cheney-Bush administration used the moment to go for their ugliest ideological goals: preventive war, unchecked Presidential power, artitrary detention and tortue of "terrorist" suspects and overly-broad expansions of police power (remember the federal library monitoring?).

Ironically, for a man who makes non-partisanship the core of his appeal so far, the current partisan polarization has effectively removed race as an issue for him as a potential Democratic candidate. I don't want to be naive about white racism, which is far more often underestimated than otherwise. But the Republican Party has worked hard over decades to establish itself as the neosegregationist party, and they've succeeded. Most if not all the voters for whom the fact Obama is African-American would be a deciding factor are already committed to voting Republican. They have no doubt which party is what they think of as the White Peoples Party.

Digby weighs in as an Obama skeptic in
Talking To The Hand (Hullabaloo blog). She links to a story showing how little Christian Right fundamentalists care what a Democrat of the Negro persuasion has to say. Digby cites this open letter about Obama signed by such fine Christian white folks as Phyllis Schlafley and Tim Wildmon which concludes, "Mr. Obama, we will never work with those can support the murder of babies in the womb." Charming. (The topic was an invitation to Obama from megachurch star Rick Warren to speak at a meeting of fundamentalists.)

I agree with Digby assessment at this point:

I do not dislike Obama nor do I think his conciliatory tone is necessarily incorrect. There is utility in showing the religious right's fundamental intolerance if nothing else. I do find his split-the-difference, triangulation tiresome, however, in the same way I find the news media's he said/she said analysis lazy. It does not clarify anything, it obscures reality and it makes it difficult for Democrats to take a stand on the social justice issues that might just inspire some people of faith. You will notice that in his statement above about absolutism he only calls out two groups by name --- Democrats and Muslims. Yet, there is no more intolerant group of people in this entire country than the religious right. By failing to "include" them by name in his call for conciliation he validates their phony argument that they are the victims of intolerance.

I don't have any sense that he really understand what he's up against with the right, but it looks as though he's going to find out. I will be very impressed if he goes into the belly of the beast at Warren's church and resists the temptation to trash secular liberals to make cheap points before a hostile crowd. I'll be even more impressed if he takes it as an opportunity to challenge their assumptions about themselves.
As Tomasky notes in his article, Obama has established a solid liberal voting record. And in the current political environment of scurrilous "oppo" research and frivolous negative campaigning, a long record of legislative accomplishment in the Senate is a mixed blessing for Presidential candidates. Because over a period of years, they are bound to have voted against some resolution that, say, mandated a 50% cut in Social Security benefits but also said, "Christianity is not an evil religion". Then the negative adds can say, "Senator X voted to say that Christianity is an evil religion".

Maybe if we get to the point where a latter-day Preston Brooks is caning a present-day Charles Sumner in the Senate chamber, a passionate appeal for both sides to calm down might have more relevancy and resonance. But what we have today is an authoritarian Republican Party that has virtually unanimously embraced the concept of preventive war (criminal under international law) and sadistic torture. And standing against them is a Democratic Party that had to be dragged kicking and screaming by its voting base this year to straightforwardly oppose an incredibly unpopular and obviously disastrous war.

But what we need right now is not a leader who leads with "I know my own side is wrong on a lot of things and, by the way, my party disrespects the Christian religion". Tomasky writes:

The reader will not find in The Audacity of Hope boldly innovative policy prescriptions that will lead the Democrats out of their wilderness. At some points Obama sounds indignant, as when he writes, "At a time when average workers are experiencing little or no income growth, many of America's CEOs have lost any sense of shame about grabbing whatever their pliant, handpicked corporate boards will allow." But the book's most interesting aspect is the author's deep ambivalence about contemporary American politics. The chapters boil down to a pattern: here's what the right believes about subject X, and here's what the left believes; and while I basically side with the left, I think the right has a point or two that we should consider, and the left can sometimes get a little carried away. In the chapter on Republicans and Democrats, for example, Obama confesses his "curious relationship" to the 1960s, and acknowledges that "as disturbed as I might have been by Ronald Reagan's election in 1980...I understood his appeal."
Finally, it's worth noting as Tomasky does that Obama's successful 2004 Senate race in Illinois was a lucky and easy ride into office. When you're looking at a lopsided majority that amounts to an all-but-sure win, you can disregard a lot of the opponent's attacks and give yourself wiggle room by taking broad, vague, conciliatory-sounding positions. You don't have to worry so much about energizing your base or getting every single Democratic voter you can out to the polls.

The 2008 Democratic Presidential candidate will not have that luxury. And the candidate will also have to take the Establishment media coverage on directly. In a head-to-head with that media darling, the Marlevous Maverick McCain, Obama's friendly press about what a nice, pleasant man he is will turn into sneering attacks on his "flip-flopping", his lack of conviction, etc. And the mainstream media will accompany the Republicans' Mightly Wurlitzer of media howling in twisting random phrases from Obama's speeches into spurrious scandals. While the Establishment press worships Maverick McCain.

Being a nice, conciliatory guy just won't cut it in that kind of a race.

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