Friday, June 06, 2008

"So what is Obamaism?"

In his recent Obama and the Death of Clintonism, Slate's John Dickerson notes that a major part of the Clintons' pain is that Obama ran against Clintonism, equating the Clintons' "triangulation and poll-driven" politics with a broken system that needs to be reformed. Having sketched out the critique, Dickerson asks, fairly enough:

So what will Obamaism (or is it Obamology?) look like now that the Democratic Party is his to shape? There are a few specific, if not overarching, data points. As an antidote to the secrecy of Clinton's 1994 health care plan, Obama has promised his health care negotiations will be on C-SPAN for all to behold. When Hillary Clinton offered a gas-tax holiday, Obama argued against it, framing the plan as vintage Clintonism—a small meaningless sop confected only for political advantage. He said that if elected, it was just this kind of nonsense he'd avoid.

These are only hints, though. The larger promise of Obama's truth-telling has still not arrived.
So what is Obamaism? Today, Obama gave a big piece of the answer. Assuming effective control over the Democratic National Committee, he announced that the DNC, like his own campaign, will not accept contributions from lobbyists. He's thus reasserted the core premise of his campaign: "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."

In a nomination fight marked by broad agreement over policy, Obama ran what was to a large extent a meta-campaign, focused less on what policies to pursue than on how to get them enacted -- in fact, on how to create a political process in which legislation would not be destroyed in the making. The single most important step is to weaken the grip of lobbyists on legislation. His March 27 Cooper Union speech on the housing crisis contributed what amounted to an extended case study to this pitch for process reform. Acknowledging, pace his famous assertion that Republicans were the party of ideas for a period, that there was a real need for bank deregulation in the 1990s, he asserted that a broken political system distorted reform:
Unfortunately, instead of establishing a 21st century regulatory framework, we simply dismantled the old one – aided by a legal but corrupt bargain in which campaign money all too often shaped policy and watered down oversight. In doing so, we encouraged a winner take all, anything goes environment that helped foster devastating dislocations in our economy.
That's a fully rounded argument: a corrupt legislative process helped to widen the wealth gap and created an unsustainable bubble economy. The metapolitics here creates a framework that moves the political center to the left: redistributing wealth and risk becomes a matter of restoring simple fairness, without which economic growth is unsustainable. In one of his most memorable formulations of the campaign, Obama asserted in this speech, "What was bad for Main Street was bad for Wall Street. Pain trickled up (my emphasis).

So, lobbying reform is really the centerpiece of the "Obamaism" Dickerson seeks. A key corollary is the fund-raising revolution that Obama has already executed. Without it, unilateral disarmament on the lobbying front would be political suicide. Raising $40 million in a month from small donations holds tremendous promise to change the foundations of power in the U.S.

Another element of Obama's metapolitics on which he's already in large part delivered is his promise to elevate political discourse -- that is, to tell the truth and avoid the politics of personal destruction. Obama's handling of the Clintons' withering attacks showcased this 'new kind of politics.' Repeatedly, when Hillary was hellacious, Obama was gracious -- praising her as a formidable opponent, affirming her right to stay in the race, dismissing the import of her RFK comment (after his campaign lit a one-match fire with their terse and more than justified "no place in this campaign" statement) -- all the while maintaining his attack on Clintonian triangulation and distortion.

In themselves, these procedural reforms do not tell us whether Obama can find a wy to pass landmark legislation. Here's how Dickerson describes Obama's proposed alternative to Clintonism:
The Clinton people call building a majority tailoring your convictions to appeal to particular blocs you need to win—independent voters, or the soccer moms of yore, or blue-collar white men. Obama critics decry this as a triangulation-ready watering down of principle. The alternative approach is to boldly state your convictions and convince people to move to your point of view.
It's true, Obama has basically proposed to build what he's called a "working majority" by sheer communicative force -- and by seizing a moment when the country seems ready for a democratic agenda (Obamaism?), as he's said the country was once ready for Reaganism. That's a tall order, and in some ways success seems less likely now than in January and February, when much of the country fell under Obama's rhetorical spell. But Obama was also right when he said back in January, in what now feels like electoral prehistory:
And, you know, so the truth is actually words do inspire. Words do help people get involved. Words do help members of Congress get into power so that they can be part of a coalition to deliver health care reform, to deliver a bold energy policy. Don't discount that power, because when the American people are determined that something is going to happen, then it happens. And if they are disaffected and cynical and fearful and told that it can't be done, then it doesn't. I'm running for president because I want to tell them, yes, we can. And that's why I think they're responding in such large numbers.
Lincoln had that power. Roosevelt had it. Maybe Kennedy had it, though he died before its promise could be enacted. In some measure, Reagan had it. Obama is asking us to believe that he has it, and that the country has the power to respond. As he never tires of reminding us, it's not as if the country has never embarked deliberately on constructive, transformative change before.

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