Categories
Barack Obama Politics The Opinionsphere

Governing Ambition Versus Political Theater

[digg-reddit-me]Noam Scheiber asks what I consider to be a rather annoying question in The New Republic – having written this piece in anticipation of Scott Brown’s win:

After a year of barely restrained governing ambition, has the political system suddenly forced the president into a posture of symbolically resonant tinkering? Has Obamaism descended into–gasp!–Clintonism?

This question annoys me with its two presumptions (and the fact that I normally like Scheiber makes it worse.)

First, it seems a bit off to describe Obama’s first year as being “barely restrained governing ambition.” This use of the phrase doesn’t quite make sense. It seems that “governing ambition” is supposed to be something bad – something excessive – as ambition so often is. The qualifying clause “barely restrained” seems to suggest Scheiber is using it this way. But the phrase “governing ambition” doesn’t mean what Scheiber seems to think. He uses it to mean “overly ambitious political goals” when the phrase actually means the “ambition to govern (or wield power)” or an “ambition that governs (controls) a person or thing.” This is actually a telling slip – as the main flaw in Scheiber’s argument is to confuse politics with policy. Obama certainly does have the “ambition to govern,” to wield the power of his office to tackle the problems facing the nation. One would expect every politician in Washington not in it purely for selfish reasons would have such an ambition. But this shouldn’t be confused with his political ambitiousness – and the question of whether he is tackling too much. The moment seems to call on many issues to be addressed – and Obama, in choosing to address them, may be taking on too much. In this way, he may suffer from the political hubris of thinking he can actually govern in a system that seems designed to thwart anyone who would take on any interest groups – but this is a far more complex picture than Scheiber’s short-handed way of calling on his readers to accept the right wing talking point that Obama is barely able to hold back as he grasps for more and more power.

Second, Scheiber suggests the alternative to Obama’s approach is “symbolically resonant tinkering.” What a depressing prospect that is! Certainly, it does provide a counterpoint to the “governing ambition” as it is more commonly used. If one is no longer able to govern and deal with the problems at hand, then one can only engage in symbolic gestures that do little. If Obama is no longer able to govern, but must instead engage in the same political theater that Republicans have been engaged in since his election, then the country loses as we put off needed reforms even longer.

What drags Scheiber off the rails is his focus on politics rather than policy. Obama’s policies involve moderate tinkering with the status quo; his political challenge though is audacious – to govern and address the fiscal crisis, our dysfunctional health care system, inequality, tax reform, immigration, energy policy, pollution – rather than engage in political theater. His agenda is audacious because the problem facing us are significant – and because inaction and petty sniping have come to define the Freak Show that is our politics.

Categories
Election 2008 McCain Obama Politics The Clintons

Re-Introducing 2parse.com and Debating “Fast Eddie Obama”


[Photo by the inimitable Joe Crimmings.]

[digg-reddit-me]My name is Joe Campbell.  I am a graduate of Holy Cross, a former partner in the now defunct RichDJ Web Services, a law clerk at a small firm in the Chrysler Building, and a supporter of Barack Obama since last summer.1  After taking a break from posting – for about 4 days, I wanted to re-launch 2parse – with more focus now that the primary is over, and that that thing I believed was so essential last summer is finally within sight.

To explain how I came to support Obama, to start this blog, and to achieve some measure of success – some 250,000 hits since it’s inception, most of them between November 2007 and February 2008 – here is my story of how I came to support Senator Obama in his campaign to become the next president of the United States of America – and why I am not in the slightest disturbed by this week’s “conventional wisdom” about Obama tacking to the center.

Here is my story:

The race begins

It was this piece in the New York Observer last March that began my several month-long conversion to Obama-dom.

When Obama first announced, my first thought was that he was too young and lacked the gravitas he needed. I had hopes for John Edwards – who I had supported in the 2004 campaign – but watching Tim Russert grill Edwards on Meet the Press about national security issues in February of 2007 left me questioning whether Edwards could speak convincingly on the subject. I didn’t think any Democrat could win unless he or she could convey the difficulty and gravity of the situation we were in there – and John Edwards’s answers were too slippery, too easy, too poll-tested.

So, I reluctantly supported Hillary Clinton – with a few concerns about whether or not she would over-compensate for her perceived weakness as a Democrat and a female by running to the right in the campaign and governing from the right as president on national security and Iraq specifically. But – I told myself – she will do what she needs to do to win, and it is essential that a Democrat (or possibly John McCain) win the White House in 2008.

McCain & me

In 2007, I struggled over whether I thought a McCain presidency would be better or worse than another Clinton presidency – at a time when it seemed certain that McCain would be the Republican nominee and Clinton the Democratic.  I had been a big supporter of McCain in the 2000 campaign and had been hopeful watching him oppose Bush’s irresponsible tax cuts, torture, some elements of executive overreach, and try to achieve a reasonable positions on immigration and climate change.

I thought a Democratic Congress might be too deferential to a Clinton presidency – and Clinton had made clear that her views on presidential power were only slightly less extreme than Dick Cheney’s. I could sense a progressive movement growing in power and influence – and I thought it might actually have more influence under a McCain presidency – as a strong Democratic Congress dominated the policy agenda – than under a Clinton presidency, in which Clinton would seek centralized control over the entire policy agenda. Abroad, I was fearful that Clinton would feel forced to be aggressive in order to deflect concerns about her gender and her liberalism while I was hopeful that McCain, winning the Republican nomination by running against George W. Bush, would be able to move the our foreign policy in a more realistic direction.

I was still undecided between what I saw then as the probable match-up, but I acknowledged to myself that I would probably still have to support Clinton over McCain with domestic issues – health care and the Supreme Court – as the tiebreakers. 2  But I wasn’t decided.

Either way, I would be glad to trade George Dubya Bush for either John McCain or Hillary Clinton – and given the rough stasis of the past four elections – the only ones which I was conscious of – it was hard to imagine any other candidates getting through, except Giuliani, who I was frightened was a closet fascist.

Politics as a contact sport

When I read that article in the Observer, two things made Obama a much more attractive candidate than he at first appeared to me at his announcement:

  1. An acquaintance of mine from college was his chief campaign speech-writer;
  2. And even as Obama talked about a new politics, he acknowledged that politics was “a contact sport.”

    “As Barack says, Chicago politics is a contact sport, and he understands how to play that,” said Robert Gibbs, the campaign’s communications director, who recently mixed it up with his Clinton counterpart, Howard Wolfson, in a very public spat. “It’s incumbent on us to demonstrate an ability to tangle.”

    This deflected a fear based on the history of Democratic Party that Obama would be a reformist candidate in the tradition of Adlai Stevenson or Jimmy Carter who disdained politics.

This acknowledgment of the reality of politics allowed me to begin to look at Obama again, to see if he could manage to balance his post-partisan campaign with the realities of hardball.  Clearly the Obama campaign wanted to convey that even as they sought to elevate the debate, they understood how the game was played.

And so, by the summer, taking into consideration the long-term problems America faced, I had become a Barack Obama supporter – and events since then have only strengthened my commitment.

The key moment that convinced me occurred as I walked home from the train station at the end of a long day at work thinking, as I often do, about politics.  I tried to imagine under which candidate America might finally begin to confront our long-festering problems.  Under both McCain and Clinton, I could only see these problems tackled as short-term issues.  The election of either would mean a continuation of the corrupt politics as usual with the real issues punted to the future.  This was my subjective sense – based on my individual projection of what each might do, on how history had worked, on how presidents and leaders could direct but not change history, on what a candidate might mean in his or her self.  It was only a quasi-rational decision.  But as I examined it after the fact, the decision came to seem more certain, as all the pieces fell into place.  It was as if in trying to put together a puzzle without any guide, and looking at each piece carefully, I had found one piece that, if it fit where I thought, the rest of the puzzle began to make sense.  For me – observing America for these past dozen years – Obama was the piece of the puzzle that made sense of the rest.

I believe it is this hope that animates his campaign – a hope that the promise of America is real and can be restored again.  America has gone astray before – again and again.  America is far from perfect.  But the wonder, the hope, the idealism, the perfection of America lies not in the fact that we do not make mistakes – but that we can – and do – reinvent ourselves to come closer to the vision of the Founding Fathers – of a democratic republic, a beacon of liberty, a nation that is a force for good in the world.  Obama will not force America to take this course.  But his election is a symbol – more, a sign – that America is ready again to reinvent itself.  And that is something we desperately need.

Reinforcements

Watching the campaign unfold, a few things became apparent:

  • Neither John McCain nor Hillary Clinton were good at running or planning a campaign.
  • Barack Obama was exceptionally good at running and planning a campaign.
  • John McCain has decided to blur his differences with George W. Bush – on torture, energy policy, taxes, and Iraq.
  • Barack Obama was not afraid to fight back against Republican talking points by standing his ground.
  • America is clearly on the wrong track – and most Americans can see that.
  • Barack Obama’s message and campaign have become the zeitgeist pushing America forward.

All of this brings me to the meme about Obama that keeps getting repeated – despite it’s contrived nature: that Obama’s new politics, his “Change You Can Believe In” and/or his post-partisan image are not compatible with the realities of politics. I remember reading columns by John Dickerson in Slate magazine in which he explained how Obama’s supporters would be turned off as they realized Obama’s “politics” were not squeaky-clean – and how Obama had raised expectations and promised a politics that didn’t exist. The New Republic had a piece on how Obama’s campaign had failed to catch fire because of the inherent tension between getting beyond polarizing politics and politics itself which is polarizing. Many said that Obama could not be post-partisan because he hadn’t taken stands against his party very often. These “inherent contradictions” was endlessly discussed among the opinion-expounders.

Every time I heard it – I thought to myself – “These people just don’t get it.”

Obama’s message was that the process (the game) of our politics was corrupt – that our decision-making process as a democracy wasn’t working; that we were avoiding dealing with the long-term problems we faced in order to focus on expensive haircuts and daily scandals; that politics had become a game in which the American people were divided into two teams of roughly equal size – and that many team members defended their team’s positions reflexively rather than reflectively; that many, many people were disengaged from politics and power because they didn’t have enough money to buy access to a candidate, because our political conversations were dominated by irrelevancies, and because they didn’t know the ins-and-outs of our closed system. The solution – as Obama saw it – was to play the game when necessary while trying to encourage processes that would reform it – to reform the system with his campaign rather than campaign to pass laws to reform the system.

Clintonism was about co-opting the power structure (which was tilted toward the monied interests and the status quo) to achieve progressive ends (or at least making the goals somewhat more progressive than they would be otherwise) and taking advantage of our debased politics to get into power. What they missed was that by leaving the power structure intact, they couldn’t achieve lasting change; and that by playing into the politics of the daily scandal, they couldn’t convince the people to back their policies. They could win, but without a real mandate; they could affect policy, but only to a degree. The Clintons thought that once they won, they could reform everything from this seat of power – but they were stymied again and again.  They attributed their losses to a “vast right wing conspiracy” but what they failed to realize was that the failure was primarily about the limitations of how they achieved power.

For Obama, his campaign is about process. If the goal of campaign finance reform is to prevent our politics from being dominated by the rich and the few, then his campaign – with it’s base of millions of small donors – has done more than any legislation passed so far to achieve this goal. Obama encouraged local activists to take ownership of his campaign – with only light supervision from campaign central. Obama spoke about issues but was not afriad to play hard ball.

That’s why the David Brooks and the other opinion-expounders never got – that the “partisanship” that was so debilitating was not based on the disagreements people had – but on the “teams” they were divided into.

Hardball

This election is about big issues – and the election should be rough and both sides should play hard.  Because there is so much at stake.

The problem with the politics of haircuts and temper tantrums is that it distracts the public from the choices it faces and denies them the opportunity to have a true referendum on what’s next.  Obama spurned the public financing system because he needed to in order to win – and he knows the stakes.  At the same time, he sees that he will not be indebted to the powerful and monied interests in the same way the Reagans, the Bushes, and the Clintons were because his base of support is far wider – comprimising millions of people determined to take their country back.

Somehow McCain’s supporters are trying to paint Obama as “just another politician” because he is willing to take an advantage without compromising his core principles in order to win this election that will determine our country’s course.  Obama is a politician.  There is no shame in that.  If he wasn’t, he wouldn’t be able to accomplish much in Washington in the first place.

The key question is: Has he compromised his core principles?  The answer, still, is “No.”  As McCain has caved on torture, on fiscal responsibility, and on immigration he has only one core principle left: the transcendent, never-ending, war on terrorism and in Iraq.  On that, he doesn’t seem to have studied the issues – as he still confuses the two competing groups of extremists – but he does know we must “stay on the offensive” no matter the cost of the shallow-ness of the policy.

We need a president who understands the roots of terrorism, who can see the evil-doers for who they are, and who can set America on a path that might actually make us safer.  John McCain is not that man.  Barack Obama could be.

I’ll be making and expanding these points as the summer goes on.  My brother will be producing videos for me.  We’ll be doing what we can to keep America safe, to elect Barack Obama the next president of the United States of America.

  1. Okay – the linked-to-post is from September, but that’s roughly when I started this blog – go ahead and ask my friends.  I’ve been supporting Obama since May/June/July of 2007.  I specifically remember talking about Obama at my friend’s bachelor party back in July or so. []
  2. Since then, McCain has decided not to run against George W. Bush and to muddy the differences between the two. If he wins, he will not have the clout within his own party to take on even the worst aspects of Bush Republicanism. For me, this is a deal-breaker. []