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Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Obama's Metapolitics

It's often said that Obama's speeches are stirring but unsubstantial -- long on hope, short on policy.

But Obama's pitch to the nation isn't insubstantial. It's meta-- a substantive critique of our political process, built on this core insight: "we need to do more than turn the page on the failed Bush-Cheney policies; we have to turn the page on the politics that helped make those policies possible."

A long train of politicians have told us that "Washington is broken." But Obama has put together a sustained critique of how the political process is broken, and how to fix it. Here, from a Jan. 30, '08 speech in Denver, is Obama's litany of the modes of political malfunction:

Lobbyists setting an agenda in Washington that feeds the inequality, insecurity, and instability in our economy.

Division and distraction that keeps us from coming together to deal with challenges like health care, and clean energy, and crumbling schools year after year after year.

Cronyism that gave us Katrina instead of competent government. And secrecy that made torture permissible and illegal wiretaps possible.

It's a politics that uses 9/11 to scare up votes; and fear and falsehoods to lead us into a war in Iraq that should've never been authorized and should've never been waged

Lobbying. Partisanship. Cronyism. Secrecy. Fear-mongering. Lying. Promising to fix these malfunctions can sound gauzy, because much of the cure lies in the power of example in the leader making the promise. You can legislate lobbying rules, and against secrecy -- but not against lying, or scorched-earth attack politics, or cronyism.

With regard to partisanship and honesty, Obama is his argument. His pledge to remain truthful, his manner of addressing the whole country, the support he's attracted from independents and Republicans while laying out a full "liberal" agenda, his record of moving bipartisan legislation on lobbying reform, videotaped police interrogations, Schip -- he seeks to demonstrate a transcendence of paralyzing partisanship without mincing on an agenda of progressive action on health care, tax policy, global warming and troop withdrawal. He says explicitly: this campaign itself embodies the politics I am promising:

And we are showing America what change looks like. From the snows of Iowa to the sunshine of South Carolina, we have built a movement of young and old; rich and poor; black and white; Latino, Asian and Native American. We've reached Americans of all political stripes who are more interested in turning the page than turning up the heat on our opponents. That's how Democrats will win in November and build a majority in Congress. Not by nominating a candidate who will unite the other party against us, but by choosing one who can unite this country around a movement for change.
With regard to Hillary, he seeks a delicate balance in responding to her (and Bill's) attacks on his record and leveling own critique of hers. Implicitly he's arguing that the attacks are different in kind, that she and Bill were distorting his record, but he's not distorting hers. Most delicately, he's incorporated his response to the Clinton smears of January into his critique of Clintonism:
Each candidate running for the Democratic nomination shares an abiding desire to end the disastrous policies of the current administration. But we must decide...just what kind of Party we want to be, and what lessons we've learned from the bitter partisanship of the last two decades. We can be a Party that tries to beat the other side by practicing the same do-anything, say-anything, divisive politics that has stood in the way of progress; or we can be a Party that puts an end to it.
The "do-anything, say-anything" tag is Obama's takeaway from the Clintons' suggestions that he was soft on opposition to the war in Iraq and in defense of abortion rights. Those attacks have become Exhibit A in his portrait of a broken political system. He is saying: you can't build a mandate, a lasting majority if you rely on Rovian campaign tactics. And he carries that attack on Hillary-as-part-of-the-problem into her policy choices, which he suggests are shaped by political calculation. Is this unfair, or a distortion? Judge:

If you choose change, you will have a nominee who doesn't take a dime from Washington lobbyists and PACs. We don't need a candidate who agrees with Republicans that lobbyists are part of the system in Washington. They're part of the problem. And when I'm President, their days of setting the agenda in Washington will be over.

If you choose change, you will have a nominee who doesn't just tell people what they want to hear. Poll-tested positions and calculated answers might be how Washington confronts challenges, but it's not how you overcome them; it's not how you inspire our nation to come together behind a common purpose; and it's not what America needs right now....

Finally, and most painfully, Obama suggests that Hillary Clinton lacked "judgment" and "courage" in her response to the rush to war in Iraq:

I will end the mentality that says the only way for Democrats to look tough on national security is by talking, acting and voting like George Bush Republicans. It's time to reject the counsel that says the American people would rather have someone who is strong and wrong than someone who is weak and right - it's time to say that we are the Party that is going to be strong and right.

It's time for new leadership that understands that the way to win a debate with John McCain is not by nominating someone who agreed with him on voting for the war in Iraq; who agreed with him by voting to give George Bush the benefit of the doubt on Iran; who agrees with him in embracing the Bush-Cheney policy of not talking to leaders we don't like; and who actually differed with him by arguing for exceptions for torture before changing positions when the politics of the moment changed.

We need to offer the American people a clear contrast on national security, and when I am the nominee of the Democratic Party, that's exactly what I will do. Talking tough and tallying up your years in Washington is no substitute for judgment, and courage, and clear plans. It's not enough to say you'll be ready from Day One - you have to be right from Day One.

This is tough but fair. As argued in a prior post, Hillary did fail in judgment and courage in the run-up to war in Iraq - not because she voted in support of the resolution authorizing force, but because she later failed to hold Bush to the conditions she laid out in her speech supporting the resolution: seek international support, try weapons inspections first, do not rush to war. When Bush cut the inspections short and prepared for invasion in February and March ''03, she offered her support. Why? She has defended her vote and speech in support of it eloquently, but not her conduct in the months following.

Obama needs to make this case, and he is not shying from it. Paradoxically, his primary proof of "a different kind of politics" is in leveling a devastating but accurate critique of Clintonism.

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