March 07, 2008

Obama's Fork

I don't generally read David Brooks because I don't generally find his bland, sophomoric, self-serving and self-satisfied version of upper-middle-class conservatism revelatory. But today's column on the shift in the Democratic primary campaign is, if not revelatory, at least as concise a description of Obama's dilemma as I've yet seen.

It's a prisoner's dilemma, that: if the lesson of Clinton's comeback on Tuesday was that negative campaigning gets results (and this is the lesson the chattering classes will want us to take, since it's the lesson that will prove most lucrative for them), then Obama will be hard pressed not to go negative. But going negative stands to hurt him as much as help, given the themes of his campaign — post-partisanism; unity; new politics; raising the tone. And it may not do much damage to Clinton, given that, as Brooks points out, her campaign rests not on promises of spiritual redemption but on the promise of a winning record on the bareknuckle fight card of legislative politics. She has suggested that changing the country's direction is about being better in the trenches than the other guys; he has suggested that changing the country's direction means getting out of the trenches altogether, because it's hard to tell the difference in the end between a trench and a gutter, especially when the results tend to stink. If he hunkers down and starts to fight, then he has, in a sense, as Brooks notes, already lost.

A couple of things. First, I confess I've been a Clinton supporter thus far, but a tepid one. I did vote for her in New York's primary; but I also stood a long time in that booth, and I pulled and unpulled the levers several times before locking them in. My allegiance has been based not on a dislike of Obama or even, really, on a concern over whether he has the gravitas for the office. He does. My choice was based on rather specific policy distinctions and on what I see as a modest difference in potential efficacy. Clinton's health care plan, for instance, is in my judgment more realistic -- or, rather, Obama's is economically unsound to the point of long-term nonviability. I also think the presidency is finally about setting and pursuing a legislative agenda, and I think Clinton's record in the senate gives her the edge in this regard. The bully pulpit is useful, but arm-twisting and cajolery are more useful, and Clinton has shown herself capable of both. That's not to say Obama isn't, just that she's done it well and she's done it more.

That said, another part of my position has been defined by an inability — or perhaps refusal — to endorse certain aspects of the style and content of Obama's campaign. It has a tendency toward elision, for one thing — toward vagueness, sometimes meaninglessness. I believe this has been a strategic choice on the campaign's part, and while I understand it as strategy and understand that it's been a big part of their success, I can't endorse it. I don't think it's particularly good for the democratic process. Similarly, "post-partisanship" as a platform strikes me as intellectually disingenuous, if not dishonest. Governance is about policy; policy is about the ways in which public business gets done. Opinions on which ways are the right ways differ; that's partisanship. Is Obama saying he has no opinions, or that his opponents have none? It's fantasy. There are genuine disagreements in the US about how to conduct foreign policy, adjust the healthcare system, structure taxes, educate children, oversee the marketplace, address social security. Reconciliation is not, and will not be, easy. There will be winners and losers. Abortion is legal or it's not; social security is privatized or it isn't. Obama's campaign has suggested the opposite: that, by some form of rhetorical magic, disagreement will vanish, consensus take its place. He has seemed to promise that he will at once be a progressive champion and take conservative viewpoints into account. That's not possible, of course; either conservatives have to give in or progressives do, because the solutions they want are not compatible. I am of the opinion that it's better to be honest about this, to talk openly about what the goals are and where points of compromise might be found. Democratic process should be conducted with open eyes as well as open minds; delusion is an enemy.

I also think it's worth noting that while the candidate himself, and the campaign as an entity, have shunned ordinary forms of internecine bitterness, Obama's supporters have done nothing of the kind. From op-ed pages to blogs to forums, Obama fans have been anything but post-partisan. Their attacks on Clinton are downright vitriolic, in fact, and they are by no means recent. It was from putative Obama progressives that I first heard threats to abstain from voting or to vote Republican in the general if Obama was not the nominee. Michelle Obama herself was one such threatener — the first major public figure, in fact, to suggest placing the candidate above the party, and presumably therefore above policy goals. What's more — and more telling — the attacks on Clinton have rarely been policy-based. They don't cite misguided proposals; they cite an intense and often inexplicable dislike of Clinton personally, or of her public style, or of her husband. It's the most discouraging kind of, yes, partisanship, because it suggests no commitment to policy at all, only to a rhetorical style or the man who employs it — a cult of personality on the one hand (love of Obama), or a cult of anti-personality on the other (hatred of Clinton). It also tends to endorse the Republican attacks of the 1990s by blaming Hillary for Whitewatergate (a seven-year, $40 million investigation that led nowhere), the health care debacle (for which Clinton surely bears some responsibility, but for which the health insurance lobby bears more, in that it spent billions to mount a vicious attack that was the true obstacle to reform), and even the Monica Lewinsky affair.

Which is to say, more generally, that it — the Obamaniacs' brand of partisanship — endorses exactly the personal-attack politics deployed by Republicans since 1987 (Willie Horton; the evisceration of Dukakis), elevating embrace or rejection of a candidate's persona over policy positions or legislative goals.

It's important to note, though, that while I think the Obama campaign has been aware of this and happy to benefit from it, they have not inhabited it themselves. Witness today's resignation by Samantha Power, a public intellectual I much admire who recently, and quite bizarrely, referred to Clinton as "a monster." I tend to think we see here both faces of the Obama phenomenon: on the one hand, a fanatical devotion to the candidate that causes supporters to lose all rationality, to take the buffeting of the campaign process deeply personally, and to lash out with the vituperation of lovers on his behalf; and, at the same time, the campaign's own rigorous dedication to its declared standards of conduct and public regard.

Brooks may well be right; all that may change. But then again it may not. It's possible Obama can hold onto the high ground and still win; his delegate advantage, after all, was virtually unchanged after Tuesday. If he sticks to his guns, deploys strategic media, and mobilizes his tremendous ground operation, he might consolidate that lead. Even losses in upcoming primaries, including Pennsylvania, won't affect it much so long as they're not massive losses. His best move now might in fact be to ignore Clinton — ignore the calling out, the mud, the sarcastic attacks. He could turn his attention instead to two things: first, reminding the country of its displeasure with the status quo — with Bush and the Republicans, and by extension with McCain, who has embraced our current course wholeheartedly in the past few months. Second, he could go on a policy offensive, drilling down on economics, health care, justice and judicial policy, education and infrastructure, fleshing out his progressive aura with policy detail. This might accomplish two things: it might siphon Clinton supporters like myself who have been frustrated by his willful vagueness; and it might let him connect with working-class voters in Pennsylvania and elsewhere who are looking for economic cred. And it would keep, perhaps even strengthen, those members of his base who have been attracted to the promise of a different kind of political discourse. The all-deciding superdelegates might find this hard to resist.

I still harbor tepid feelings for Clinton, but I don't much like her campaign. I don't like attacks that stir fear, or that sound as though Karl Rove wrote them. I like even less the notion that we might populate government offices based on highly mediated perceptions of personality rather than on policy positions and legislative goals. And I think a strong case can be made that Obama — if he remains Obama — would run stronger against McCain in the general. The politics of fear are nearly played out, I think, especially if voters can be reminded of what they've brought us.

So it seems that, in more ways than one, the ball is now in Obama's court.

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