Friday, February 29, 2008

11-0, back to the wall?

The Clinton campaign made a modest little attempt today to spin expectations:
To: Interested Parties

From: The Clinton Campaign

Date: Friday, February 29, 2008

RE: Obama Must-Wins

The media has anointed Barack Obama the presumptive nominee and he's playing the part.

With an eleven state winning streak coming out of February, Senator Obama is riding a surge of momentum that has enabled him to pour unprecedented resources into Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island and Vermont.

The Obama campaign and its allies are outspending us two to one in paid media and have sent more staff into the March 4 states. In fact, when all is totaled, Senator Obama and his allies have outspent Senator Clinton by a margin of $18.4 million to $9.2 million on advertising in the four states that are voting next Tuesday.

Senator Obama has campaigned hard in these states. He has spent time meeting editorial boards, courting endorsers, holding rallies, and - of course - making speeches.

If he cannot win all of these states with all this effort, there's a problem.

Should Senator Obama fail to score decisive victories with all of the resources and effort he is bringing to bear, the message will be clear:

Democrats, the majority of whom have favored Hillary in the primary contests held to date, have their doubts about Senator Obama and are having second thoughts about him as a prospective standard-bearer.

There's been no lack of incredulity in the face of this the-more-you-win-the-bigger-you- have-to-win-to-stay-even logic (best comment on Ambinder, by Lampwick: "so what they're saying is that a 1-14 win/loss streak would trump a 14-1 win/loss streak"). But the weirdness here is more than mathematical. One sideswipe in particular struck me as even odder than the main premise:
Senator Obama has campaigned hard in these states. He has spent time meeting editorial boards, courting endorsers, holding rallies, and - of course - making speeches.
A candidate who makes speeches! How opportunistic! How shallow! Can't be trusted with the red phone...

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Holding back on the surge

Andrew Sullivan protests too much that benefits of the surge are uncertain:
But surely two facts help explain its unexpected success: the Sunni insurgency decided that crazy Jihadists were temporarily a greater threat than the Shiites or the Americans, and were happy to be trained, armed and paid by the US to regain control of their territory; and Sadr decided it was in his interests to facilitate rather than impede the construction of a Shiite-dominated state. The question now is whether the reduced violence means a greater chance of an historic rapprochement between the various ethnic and sectarian factions that divide Iraq at a national level - which was explicitly the goal of the surge (emphasis added0.
Cause and effect is always a tangle. Did Rudy Giuliani 'cause' the crime drop in NY? No, but he did the right things to facilitate it, for a while at least. I think it's fair to say that the surge created conditions pushing the Sunni insurgency and Sadr to "decide" on courses favorable to the goals of the surge. As to Sullivan's final question above: who knows whether or how much rapprochement there'll be -- but surely reduced violence means a greater chance of a good outcome.

We'll never know what would have happened had U.S. troop presence been reduced in early '07 in concert with the multi-front diplomatic efforts recommended by the Iraq Study Group. But I am troubled by Obama's so far unwavering insistence that he will withdraw all combat troops within sixteen months. If I remember right, Hillary was saying at an earlier phase that she couldn't know in advance what rate of troop withdrawal would be appropriate by Jan. 09 and beyond. I think that's the right tack. The time may come to gamble on taking our hand away -- for a different president, that time might be now -- but I don't think that judgment can be made far in advance or from the outside. I think that Obama somehow (and Hillary for that matter) need to open up some maneuvering space for themselves. Of course, they're in a box now -- each would beat up on the other if one hedged at this point, and either would have a very tough time running center on this after winning the nomination. Obama in particular has been running on a clean contrast with McCain -- how can he admit any lasting benefit at all may come from the surge?

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

A Mighty Wind? Rachman Blasts Obama's Rhetoric

Golly gosh, Gideon! The Financial Times' Gideon Rachman, one of the most acute and fact-based columnists writing in English today, has charged that Obama the Orator is an emperor wearing no clothes:
his most famous phrases are vacuous. The "audacity of hope"? It would be genuinely audacious to run for the White House on a platform of despair. Promising hope is simply good sense. "The fierce urgency of now"? It is hard to see what Mr Obama means when he says this - other than that some inner voice has told him to run for president. [snip]

...his campaign is relying on some of the most clich├ęd and least challenging slogans in the American political lexicon: unity not division; the future not the past; change not stagnation; an end to "business as usual"; lobbyists are bad, the people are good. Or as the man himself puts it: "We are choosing hope over fear. We're choosing unity over division, and sending a powerful message that change is coming to America.
Respect for Rachman sent me back to Obama's speeches. I've concluded that I'm not deluded, and that Rachman has missed the gist of Obama's grist.

Leave aside that for better or worse, Obama's been packing his speeches with policy prescriptions since floating off on the ozone a bit on Super Tuesday (see Janesville WI and Virginia). More broadly, Rachman cuts Obama's exhortations out of context and ignores his intricate diagnosis of the "now" that demands such 'fierce urgency.'

That diagnosis operates on the level of both policy and politics, or dare I say metapolitics. It wraps a straightforward liberal agenda in a bid for a new consensus and a reformed political process. Obama's not left of center, but he's making a subtle but quite open pitch to move the center left.

At the heart of Obama's pitch is Democrats' 'what's the matter with Kansas?' wonderment, a conviction that Americans have been voting against their core interests - economically, as income inequality widens and risk shifts to individuals; internationally, as we groan under the burden of Bush's jump-with-both-feet imperialism; and constitutionally, as we sign away our civil liberties (and abuse those of our captives) in the name of security.Obama has defined the damage on all these fronts forcefully and concretely.

Obama's response to this frustration (on the economic front at least) grows out his life project, the first half of which is recounted out in his autobiography, Dreams from My Father. The drama at the heart of the book is Obama's rejection of identity politics and black militancy in favor of learning the slow, patient labor of organizing--helping disadvantaged people identify what they need most and helping them work the political system to get it.

That early work shaped Obama's political style, which is to avoid demonizing the opposition -- and co-opt enough of it to build a 'working majority.' The keynotes of his rhetoric - yes, we can; the audacity of hope; the fierce urgency of now; we are the change we've been seeking -- express his invitation to all of us to join this working majority.

In this regard, Obama's controversial acknowledgment of Reagan's legitimacy as a 'transformational' leader is crucial. Reagan, Obama said, "put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. I think they felt like with all the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s and government had grown and grown but there wasn't much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating." In effect, Obama is saying, the country was right to swing right in 1980 -- and it's ready to swing left now." But he doesn't call it 'left' -- he casts his economic agenda as necessary to restoring "balance" and "fairness." Edwards emphasized the present divide between two Americas; Obama, noting the same ills, keeps his focus on past, future and ideal:
But through hard times and good, great challenge and great change, the promise of Janesville has been the promise of America - that our prosperity can and must be the tide that lifts every boat; that we rise or fall as one nation; that our economy is strongest when our middle-class grows and opportunity is spread as widely as possible. And when it's not - when opportunity is uneven or unequal - it is our responsibility to restore balance, and fairness, and keep that promise alive for the next generation. That is the responsibility we face right now, and that is the responsibility I intend to meet as President of the United States.
Obama's policies, as he often points out, reflect what is right now a virtual consensus Democratic agenda. His metapolitics is a critique of process: "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." That means cutting lobbyist influence; acknowledging that the opposition occasionally has an idea in its head; calling out Rovian campaign tactics and avoiding them himself (an ideal he hasn't always lived up to). His cure is part legislative fix of the process (lobbying and campaign reform) and part personal example. Obama uses his electoral success to date to argue explicitly that he can build a working majority for Democrats. He's used the Clintons' nastier attacks to argue that Bill failed and Hillary will fail to build a working majority for Democrats because of their long-established "truthiness" problems.

There's nothing vapid about this package. The policy agenda is explicit, the process diagnosis is detailed, and the pitch to build a working majority is indeed built on the urgency of this moment -- a moment in which, as David Frum recently pointed out in Rachman's FT, a generation of young voters is emerging that's likely to be voting against Bush into the 2060s.

At the heart of Obama's case that he can build a working majority is the evidence of the moment:
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.
Many sense that unity being forged as he speaks. He strikes chords across the political spectrum (see the reaction to his speeches on . And he's hiding nothing in a very detailed policy agenda.

Related posts:
Obama gets down to tax brass
Obama brings it back to earth in Virginia
Feb. 5: Hillary's Speech was Better than Obama's
Obama's Metapolitics
Obama: Man, those Klinton Kids are Something
Obama Praises Clinton, and Buries Him

Monday, February 25, 2008

Olive branches and broken arrows: Hillary at GWU

Hillary's foreign policy speech at George Washington University today sketches out a reasonable if rather anodyne balance of hard and soft power (central trope: use both the arrows and olive branch) and includes a sharp, fair attack on Obama. But there's a hole in the heart of the speech. It's here:
On my first day in office, I will announce, as I have repeatedly in this campaign, that the era of cowboy diplomacy is over. That includes the doctrine of pre-emptive war. I have been against that for many years. I believe it led us into a blind alley and I don’t think I need to remind the retired flag officers here today how difficult the choices made by the president have been for American military. We need a new national military strategy that employs military power wisely instead of squandering it (emphasis added).
Against pre-emptive war for many years? The sad part about this claim is that it's true -- in theory. When Hillary says in this speech, "yes, we must use force when necessary but as a last resort, not a first resort," she is echoing precisely the language of her Oct 2002 speech in support of the resolution to use force in Iraq. In that speech, her support of the resolution was amply hedged with admonitions to seek U.N. support , try inspections first, not go to war unilaterally or preemptively.

The problem is that when Bush ignored her admonitions, Hillary lacked the courage of her convictions. She ended up being for a rush to war after she was against it. As recounted in a prior post, she never called Bush out as he "led us into a blind alley." As the Daily News reported on the eve of war, March 20, 2003:

Sen. Hillary Clinton wishes President Bush had lined up more nations in his "coalition of the willing" against Iraq - but she won't second-guess him as war approaches.

, outspoken on major issues such as homeland security, defended her near-silence yesterday over Bush's failed diplomatic efforts to rally UN backing to disarm Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein by force. "I think everybody wishes we had more international support for this action," Clinton said in an interview.

But, she added, "I don't think it's useful now to go back and Monday morning quarterback."

Maybe that failure to rush the passer four years ago explains the rhetorical blockage in the passive-voice swipe at "the choices made by the president" (and unchecked by me....). It's all very well to speak of being ready to make decisions "when that 3 a.m. phone call comes," but where's the evidence that Hillary has ever made a key decision under pressure? There's no bridge from having "had a pretty good inside view, over eight years in the white House and now over seven years in the Senate, of what the president goes through" or even from having "travel[led] to more than eighty countries representing the United States" having taken any difficult stands or made any difficult decisions.

Hillary's critique of Obama's too soft/too hard foreign policy pronouncements does have some bite:

If I am entrusted with the presidency, America will have the courage, once again, to meet with our adversaries. But I will not be penciling in the leaders of Iran or North Korea or Venezuela or Cuba on the presidential calendar without preconditions, until we have assessed through lower level diplomacy, the motivations and intentions of these dictators. Raul Castro, for example, has a stark choice. He can continue to stifle human rights and economic freedom in Cuba, or he can chart a new course toward democratic reform. We need to engage with our allies in Latin America and Europe to encourage Cuba on to the right path. But we simply cannot legitimize rogue regimes or weaken American prestige by impulsively agreeing to presidential level talks that have no preconditions. It may sound good but it doesn’t meet the real world test of foreign policy. I have traveled to so many countries working on issues involving some of the most intractable challenges we face. And as we see people respond to their own conditions, we have to be ready to act.

The clearest example of that is what just happened in Pakistan. The Pakistani people essentially repudiated the Bush administration’s policies and created a new dynamic that could lead to greater freedoms and democracy or to a greater crisis with implications for the war in Afghanistan.

One thing the American people can be sure of, I will not broadcast threats of unilateral military action against a country like Pakistan just to demonstrate that I am tough enough for the job. We have to change our tone and change our course.

I've been distressed to watch Obama continue to dig deeper into the hole he slipped into in the YouTube debate, when he said he'd meet five rogue leaders in the first year of his presidency. I suspect he didn't fully absorb the question and didn't mean to say that he'd meet all five personally within a year--just that, on principle, it makes sense to be willing to meet when there's something to be negotiated. But in post-debate dueling he went the other route and tried to suggest that Hillary wouldn't be willing enough to negotiate with rogues. He's been at it ever since -- most recently in the Austin debate, when he said he would meet Raoul Castro without preconditions (albeit with 'preparation') , handing Hillary yet another opportunity to spell out the conditions under which a president should meet with an adversarial leader. And on the other end of the spectrum, I think Hillary's right that Obama was essentially saber-rattling in declaring his willingness to order unilateral U.S. military action inside Pakistan's borders.

If those arrows hit home at all, it's likelier that McCain will reap the benefit than that Hillary will.

Related posts:
Hillary Gets Motherly II
Obama gets down to tax brass
Obama brings it back to earth in Virginia
Feb. 5: Hillary's Speech was Better than Obama's
Obama's Metapolitics

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Hillary Gets Motherly II

Hillary’s close-out in the Austin debate could be her pre-New Hampshire tear-up moment squared. I believe it struck a deep chord, what perhaps is and should be Hillary’s dominant campaign chord: her bid to nurture the nation, to be mother of us all.

If Hillary were a man, her governing philosophy would be dubbed paternalistic. She wants government to take care of us. When Obama says “yes we can,” that “we” is fruit of his bottom-up political trajectory: he began public life as an organizer. Hillary’s “we” is a royal “we,” a Queen Mother “we.” In her stump speeches a while back, and in her Super Tuesday speech, she fused herself with the Statue of Liberty as provider of refuge for the downtrodden:
We must continue to be a nation that strives always to give each of our children a better future, a nation of optimists who believe our best days are yet to come, a nation of idealists, holding fast to our deepest values, that we are all created equal, that we all deserve to fulfill our God given potential, that we are destined for progress together.

It's the ideal inscribed on the base of the Statute of Liberty in this great city that has overlooked our harbor through wars and depression and the dark days of September 11, the words we all know that give voice to America's embrace -- "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free" -- a constant reminder that here in America, we face our challenges and we embrace all of our people.

So today we say with one voice -- give us the child who wants to learn, give us the people in need of work, give us the veterans who need our care. We say give us this economy to rebuild and this war to end. Give us this nation to heal, this world to lead, this moment to seize.

The tear-up moment in New Hampshire tapped into this self image, albeit with a strong tincture, as Maureen Dowd was pleased to highlight, of self-regard or self pity: it’s hard, but I keep trucking because I want so badly to do so much for so many. The Austin peroration started in the same vein –

But people often ask me, how do you do it, you know, how do you keep going…

But it packed a much more concentrated maternal clinch—perhaps because the object of her care was less abstract. Here, the stand-in for all of us was not the huddled masses at Liberty’s base but the “Intrepid” wounded warriors home from Iraq:

….with all of the challenges that I've had, they are nothing compared to what I see happening in the lives of Americans every single day.

You know, a few months ago I was honored to be asked, along with Senator McCain, as the only two elected officials to speak at the opening of the Intrepid Center at Brooke Medical Center in San Antonio, a center designed to take care of and provide rehabilitation for our brave young men and women who have been injured in war. And I remember sitting up there and watching them come in: those who could walk were walking; those who had lost limbs were trying with great courage to get themselves in without the help of others; some were in wheelchairs and some were on gurneys. And the speaker representing these wounded warriors had had most of his face disfigured by the results of fire from a roadside bomb.

You know, the hits I've taken in life are nothing compared to what goes on every single day in the lives of people across our country. And I resolved at a very young age that I'd been blessed, and that I was called by my faith and by my upbringing to do what I could to give others the same opportunities and blessings that I took for granted. That's what gets me up in the morning. That's what motivates me in this campaign.
Rereading this gave me chills --even as I weighed how calculated it might be. (Seeing it live didn't.) I don’t pretend I can read the tangle of motivations powering Hillary – or for that matter, the motives of anyone else with the odd mixture of megalomania and humility that makes it possible to mount a credible run for the Presidency. But here --Obama supporter that I am -- I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. She does want to bind up the nation’s wounds, and she thinks there’s something in her little black surgeon’s bag for everyone. (The link with the 71 year-old McCain casts an odd Mom-and-Pop-gazing-down sidelight on Obama.)

The final sentences in Hillary's Austin peroration cast the nation as an extended friends and family circle:
And you know, whatever happens, we're going to be fine. You know, we have strong support from our families and our friends. I just hope that we'll be able to say the same thing about the American people, and that's what this election should be about. Thanks.
My wife points out to me that Hillary here adapts an Edwards line (and the alchemy casts an interesting light on the plagiarism debate). Edwards said in several debates about himself and his opponents: we’re fine, we’ll be fine. There was a two-Americas bite to this: “we,” the wealthy and privileged candidates, will be fine because we have money and government-supplied healthcare. Hillary softens this: she and Obama will be fine because of their personal networks. Then there’s a segue: surely she’s not suggesting that the American people have weak friends-and-family ties, or that this election is about strengthening them. She’s sliding from the personal safety net to the governmental. And that segue is her governing philosophy. It takes a village. Thanks.

Friday, February 22, 2008

"The Obama Delusion" Delusion

On Feb. 20, Robert Samuelson launched an assault on The Obama Delusion, claiming not that Obama's campaign is light on policy but that his policy agenda is "completely ordinary, highly partisan, not candid and mostly unresponsive to many pressing national problems." There is, Samuelson says, a "hugh and deceptive gap between his captivating oratory and his actual views."

This attack misapprehends the relationship between Obama's politics -- his policy prescriptions -- and his metapolitics -- his bid to change the political process. Samuelson complains that what Obama freely admits is mainly a consensus Democratic agenda is nothing but a tired "goody bag." Obama, however, is not claiming unique originality in crafting the Democratic agenda -- but rather, the political skills to get that agenda passed and to change the political process so that the agenda is not destroyed in the passing.

Samuelson may think it would be old, tired, partisan politics to pass universal healthcare, but most Americans would regard doing so as an epochal, game-changing accomplishment. Hence a key tenet of Obama's appeal -- that this is a moment in which the right Democrat can seize on a leftward swing in the electorate and build a working majority to achieve core Democratic goals: universal healthcare coverage; reversing the 30-year tide of rising income inequality; a set of income supports and tax incentives for the working poor and middle class; and public investment in infrastructure and alternative energy.

For Samuelson, this agenda is a pander package. In fact, Obama's economic plan coherently reflects his core priorities -- to restore "balance" and "fairness" to the U.S. economy by redistributing income toward the working poor, redistributing risk that has been shifted onto individuals back toward the collective, and investing in the public good through infrastructure and energy projects. The money would come from troop withdrawal in Iraq, and by rolling back Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy.

Because he does not respect this policy agenda, Samuelson misrepresents Obama's metapolitics -- his argument that we need to fix the policymaking process before we can craft effective policy. As Obama put it on Feb. 19 in Houston, "the problem that we face in America today is not the lack of good ideas. It's that Washington has become a place where good ideas go to die." He has said repeatedly that his policy prescriptions are broadly similar to Hillary's. But he has argued repeatedly and in depth that he is better equipped than Hillary to build a mandate to get the essentials passed -- and to transform the policymaking process as he goes.

According to Samuelson, this appeal is based too much on a kind of myth of personality:

The subtext of Obama's campaign is that his own life narrative -- to become the first African American president, a huge milestone in the nation's journey from slavery -- can serve as a metaphor for other political stalemates. Great impasses can be broken with sufficient goodwill, intelligence and energy.

True enough so far. The intoxicating prospect of electing a black president is an important 'subtext' of an apparently broad and deep wish in the electorate to 'change our politics.' It's also true that to a large degree Obama is his argument. His refusal to accept lobbying money, his pledge to remain truthful, his rhetorical success in touching chords throughout the electorate (see reaction to his speech), his electoral success to date, his record of moving bipartisan legislation -- all are deployed to demonstrate the possibility of transcending paralyzing partisanship without mincing on a progressive agenda.

Obama's apparent ability to win broad support while being completely explicit about a policy agenda that Samuelson regards as tired-left lends credibility to his pitch that he can change our politics by building a "working majority." The originality lies not in the individual policy prescriptions, but in the attempt to recast that package as the center in American politics. In that way, Obama is indeed bidding to be the left's Reagan -- "transformative" in taking the electorate where he wants to go.

Related posts:
Obama gets down to tax brass
Obama brings it back to earth in Virginia
Feb. 5: Hillary's Speech was Better than Obama's
Obama's Metapolitics
Obama: Man, those Klinton Kids are Something
Obama Praises Clinton, and Buries Him

Monday, February 18, 2008

America for Dummies

To Susan Jacoby, the latest curmudgeon to lament The Dumbing of America, I offer this this rejoinder in an eternal dialogue:

"Decay, decay, decay,
Decline, decline, decline..."

"Yada yada yada,
we're fine, we're fine, we're fine."

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Heretical thought of the day

Why is it so hard for Democrats to stand up against Bush on FISA legislation? Many senators have made the point that the FISA law as it existed prior to the passing of the Protect America Act last summer needs only minor fixes, most notably to allow warrantless tapping of calls outside the U.S. that pass through the U.S. In response to the pressure to pass new legislation before the expiration of the PAA, it's been easy to point out that the expanded wiretapping authority granted by the PAA does not expire until next summer.

So why the rush to roll over? Why did the Senate pass a bill that grants full telecom immunity and provides no meaningful oversight? Democrats don't seem to lack for effective messaging to insulate them against 'soft on terror' smears:
"Their true concern here is not national security," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement. "Rather they want to protect the financial interests of telecommunications companies and avoid judicial scrutiny of their warrantless wiretapping program." (Courtesy of Daily Kos's redoubtable McJoan).

Nor is it difficult at this moment to stare down the President's fear-mongering about the consequences of allowing the PAA to expire. Here is Senator Ted Kennedy on Bush's latest ultimatum:

Think about what we’ve been hearing from the White House in this debate. The President has said that American lives will be sacrificed if Congress does not change FISA. But he has also said that he will veto any FISA bill that does not grant retroactive immunity. No immunity, no new FISA bill. So if we take the President at his word, he is willing to let Americans die to protect the phone companies.
That's a pretty effective rejoinder. So why didn't more Democratic senators take this tack? It's not just a matter of not wanting to stick it to the telcos for acceding to Bush Administration demands for data, since the Senate rejected a proposal from Sens. Arlen Specter (R-PA) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) that would have made the government stand in as defendant in those suits.

Can the senators still be so afraid of Bush's 'soft on terror' smears? Or so beholden to telecom lobbying dollars? It would seem that rather than running for political cover, those opposed to expanding the executive branch power of surveillance would be able to make political hay out of the Bush Administration's lawlessness: PAA opponents have laid out hors d'oeuvre trays full of potent sound bites.

That's why I can't quite shake the suspicion that there may be more to the Dem senators' repeated rollovers than meets the eye. What do they fear might come out in litigation against the telecom companies? Or what surveillance powers demanded by the Administration do they fear not to grant, and why?

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Janesville: Obama Gets Down to Tax Brass

Janesville, Wisconsin, February 13, 2008: Obama gets down to tax brass. That is, to redistributing a bit of income and reversing the rising tide of inequality. So how's he going to build a "working mandate" for an unabashedly liberal agenda - mainly a set of income subsidies, risk relief and job creation measures?

The sweep of social spending proposed in this speech is pretty breathtaking. There's a series of measures to shore up the income and security of the working poor and lower middle class -- minimum wage with a yearly COLA raise, expanded earned income tax credit, mortgage interest tax credit, a tax cut for working families, payroll tax elimination for seniors with less than $50k income, $4,000 tuition tax credit, expanded child care tax credit, expanded Family Medical Leave Act.

Then there's risk transfers: required direct deposit retirement accounts, debt relief for those who went bankrupt because of medical expenses -- and, uber alles, subsidies to make health care affordable. Finally there's public investment to spur employment: $60 billion for infrastructure, $150 billion for "green energy" investment. Whew.

The conservative soft spot for Obama notwithstanding, their guns are sure to be trained swiftly on the economic package laid out in its entirety here. George Will, for example, is going to have to rethink his recent outburst of Obamania:
The way to achieve Edwards's and Huckabee's populist goal of reducing the role of "special interests," meaning money, in government is to reduce the role of government in distributing money. But populists want to sharply increase that role by expanding the regulatory state's reach and enlarging its agenda of determining the distribution of wealth. Populists, who are slow learners, cannot comprehend this iron law: Concentrate power in Washington, and you increase the power of interests whose representatives are concentrated there.

Barack Obama, who might be mercifully closing the Clinton parenthesis in presidential history, is refreshingly cerebral amid this recrudescence of the paranoid style in American politics. He is the un-Edwards and un-Huckabee — an adult aiming to reform the real world rather than an adolescent fantasizing mock-heroic "fights" against fictitious villains in a left-wing cartoon version of this country.

Will is half-right. In the Janesville speech, Obama advances an Edwardian agenda, complete with a hat-tip to Edwards' precept that "this country should be rewarding work, not wealth." And he denounces tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy and the influence of lobbyists on the tax code and legislation generally. But it's also true that he presents this agenda as "an adult aiming to reform the real world" -- and avoids the demonization trap. His calls to national unity that many find so stirring and that some find vacuous are wrapped round his call to reverse the tide of income inequality that's been rising for thirty-plus years.

In fact, he casts income redistribution -- "at a time when we have greater income disparity in the country than we've seen since the first year of the Great Depression" -- as an imperative of fulfilling the American Dream. That's his key to winning the center.

There are several steps to this move-the-center-left gambit. First, Obama frames income redistribution at this time as simple fairness and a collective responsibility:
when opportunity is uneven or unequal - it is our responsibility to restore balance, and fairness, and keep that promise alive for the next generation. That is the responsibility we face right now, and that is the responsibility I intend to meet as President of the United States.
"Balance" suggests the center: the nation has careered rightward. "Responsibility" is a Republican buzzword -- but Obama applies it to the community rather than the individual. And "fairness" - who's going to quarrel with that?

One of Obama's favorite formulations is "we're not blameless." The 'we' can be the nation, the Democratic party, and even in some instances himself -- he's used this formula to confess to his own campaign's excesses in sniping at Hillary. At Janesville, it frames his economic agenda:
We are not standing on the brink of recession due to forces beyond our control. The fallout from the housing crisis that's cost jobs and wiped out savings was not an inevitable part of the business cycle. It was a failure of leadership and imagination in Washington - the culmination of decades of decisions that were made or put off without regard to the realities of a global economy and the growing inequality it's produced.
Second, Obama makes it a point to acknowledge countervailing realities. At Janesville, he denounces NAFTA and calls for "fair trade" agreements -- without specifying how such agreements can include "protections for American workers." But he also grants:

Now we know that we cannot put up walls around our economy. We know that we cannot reverse the tide of technology that's allowed businesses to send jobs wherever there's an internet connection. We know that government cannot solve all our problems, and we don't expect it to.
Third, contra the WSJ's Daniel Henninger, who accuses Obama of purveying "a message that is largely negative...a depressing message", Obama casts the current "imbalance" as a temporary aberration -- a condition we have more than enough strength to fix:
But that doesn't mean we have to accept an America of lost opportunity and diminished dreams. Not when we still have the most productive, highly-educated, best-skilled workers in the world. Not when we still stand on the cutting edge of innovation, and science, and discovery. Not when we have the resources and the will of a decent, generous people who are ready to share in the burdens and benefits of a global economy. I am certain that we can keep America's promise - for this generation and the next.
Finally, Obama makes shoring up the working poor and middle an imperative of the "unity" he always affirms, and which is often ridiculed as feel-good puffery. Here, unity is "shared sacrifice and shared prosperity":
In the end, this economic agenda won't just require new money. It will require a new spirit of cooperation and innovation on behalf of the American people. We will have to learn more, and study more, and work harder. We'll be called upon to take part in shared sacrifice and shared prosperity. And we'll have to remind ourselves that we rise and fall as one nation; that a country in which only a few prosper is antithetical to our ideals and our democracy; and that those of us who have benefited greatly from the blessings of this country have a solemn obligation to open the doors of opportunity, not just for our children, but to all of America's children.

None of this really new. Obama recognizes that. What's new, he tells us, is the context -- a time when income inequality has reached new heights, and tax cuts for the wealthy have reached new extremes, and lobbyists control legislation, and the national wealth is hemorrhaging into Iraq. On the level of values, he's calling for renewal and return rather than innovation. And like almost all U.S. politicians, he brings it back to the American Dream:

It's a promise that's been passed down through the ages; one that each generation of Americans is called to keep - that we can raise our children in a land of boundless opportunity, broad prosperity, and unyielding possibility. That is the promise we must keep in our time, and I look forward to working and fighting to make it real as President of the United States. Thank you.
Footnote: How can Obama pay for all this? Roll back some of the Bush tax cuts? Probably. Get troops out of Iraq quickly? Dicey. Forget about the $150 billion for green energy -- or, say, 90% of it? Probably. Question, Senator: what about military spending? Looked at any big-ticket weapons programs lately?

Related posts:
Obama brings it back to earth in Virginia
Feb. 5: Hillary's Speech was Better than Obama's
Obama's Metapolitics
Obama: Man, those Klinton Kids are Something
Obama Praises Clinton, and Buries Him

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Why Daniel Henninger is Depressed

As one of the WSJ editorial page's chief ideological warriors, Daniel Henninger is easily depressed these days. Here's what he has to say about Obama's latest speech:
Listen closely to that Tuesday night Wisconsin speech. Unhinge yourself from the mesmerizing voice. What one hears is a message that is largely negative, illustrated with anecdotes of unremitting bleakness. Heavy with class warfare, it is a speech that could have been delivered by a Democrat in 1968, or even 1928. [snip]

Here's his America: "lies awake at night wondering how he's going to pay the bills . . . she works the night shift after a full day of college and still can't afford health care for a sister who's ill . . . the senior I met who lost his pension when the company he gave his life to went bankrupt . . . the teacher who works at Dunkin' Donuts after school just to make ends meet . . . I was not born into money or status . . . I've fought to bring jobs to the jobless in the shadow of a shuttered steel plant . . . to make sure people weren't denied their rights because of what they looked like or where they came from . . . Now we carry our message to farms and factories."

It ends: "We can cast off our doubts and fears and cynicism because our dream will not be deferred; our future will not be denied; and our time for change has come."

I am not saying all of this is false. But it is a depressing message to ride all the way to the White House.
Let's get this straight. To rally the country to deal with widening income inequality, a health system that leaves 45 million people uninsured and another 30 million underinsured, a massive transfer of risk of all kinds onto individuals,and the wage pressures imposed by globalization is to be 'depressing.' To tell the country 'yes we can" deal with these major social ills, to say that the American dream and the American ideal calls us to share opportunity, share risk, and yes, share wealth more equitably is to purvey "a vision of the United States that is quite grim and could wear thin in the general election."

In an odd way, this free market fundamentalist response to Obama makes me happy. It shows that economic conservatives have nothing left. Only an ideologically blinkered remnant still believes that that we have not failed miserably in recent years to deal with the festering social ills that both Obama and Clinton are calling us to deal with. The readers commenting on the transcript of Obama's Martin Luther King Day speech did not find his message 'depressing' -- instead they poured out their admiration with comments like these:
"Beautiful! I’m a republican but I would vote for Senator Obama over Senator McCain!"

"Obama is the most inspiring candidate I’ve ever heard. He has caused me to switch from the Repulican to the Democratic Party and I will be volunteering in has campaign. Enough of the cynicism and doubt. Go Obama!"

"I’m a republican thats going to vote for Obama. Rather be for a party that is for the people and not just the wealthy corporate elite."
Obama has devoted his adult life to protecting the rights and increasing opportunity for the least advantaged. At the same time, as his much maligned comments about Reagan demonstrated, he has absorbed the lessons of liberal excess in the '60s and '70s --he's not calling for welfare as we used to know it or a protectionist regime. Here's that rounded awareness, from his speech at a GM plant in Janesville, WI on 2/13:
Now we know that we cannot put up walls around our economy. We know that we cannot reverse the tide of technology that’s allowed businesses to send jobs wherever there’s an internet connection. We know that government cannot solve all our problems, and we don’t expect it to.
He is pragmatic and inclusive enough to drive legislation that Republicans can buy into. It is because he is not bitter, because he calls on America to do better out of a deep confidence in the country's historical success in moving progressively closer to fulfilling the ideals expressed in the Declaration and the Constitution, that Americans of every political stripe are responding to him. Here is the flip side of the vision that Henninger finds so bitter, again from Janesville:
But that doesn’t mean we have to accept an America of lost opportunity and diminished dreams. Not when we still have the most productive, highly-educated, best-skilled workers in the world. Not when we still stand on the cutting edge of innovation, and science, and discovery. Not when we have the resources and the will of a decent, generous people who are ready to share in the burdens and benefits of a global economy. I am certain that we can keep America’s promise – for this generation and the next.

And, from the beginning of the same speech, the simple credo that engenders both the criticism and the promise:

But through hard times and good, great challenge and great change, the promise of Janesville has been the promise of America – that our prosperity can and must be the tide that lifts every boat; that we rise or fall as one nation; that our economy is strongest when our middle-class grows and opportunity is spread as widely as possible. And when it’s not – when opportunity is uneven or unequal – it is our responsibility to restore balance, and fairness, and keep that promise alive for the next generation. That is the responsibility we face right now, and that is the responsibility I intend to meet as President of the United States.
A few hours after reading Henninger, I happened on (via Ezra Klein) a magnificently clear-headed debunking of myths about Canadian healthcare on written by a certain Sara Robinson who has lived under both systems -- at times simultaneously, as a Canadian citizen with an American employer. The most telling part of her analysis (in Part II) focused on the national security risks posed by a healthcare system in which legions of un- and underinsured put off going to the doctor when they are ill. Robinson contrasted the swift, thorough, efficient action of the Canadian healthcare system to contain the SARS outbreak with a likely scenario had the outbreak occured in the U.S.:
If the first people to get sick were among those 75 million without adequate insurance, they probably would have toughed it out a few extra days before finally dragging their half-dead carcasses into an ER somewhere. Not only would they be much farther along in the course of the disease -- and thus at greater risk of death themselves -- every one of them could have infected dozens or even hundreds of other people in the meantime, accelerating the spread of the epidemic.
Robinson argues that a country that aspires truly to be a commonwealth is more healthy in the broadest sense:
Part of what makes a country competitive is its own commitment to the common good. I've often been impressed by the very tangible sense of civic pride and shared effort my Canadian neighbors have in the fact that they're taking the best possible care of their own, regardless of status, age, or ethnicity. Every encounter with the medical system reminds them that they're all in this together. A medical system that routinely drives families into bankruptcy or divorce court is actively destroying, rather than adding to, the essential social capital that makes the whole society function.
To free market ideologues like Henniger, that 'social capital' is a chimera. But the American electorate is ready to invest.

Related Posts:
McCain and Lieberman's Bridge to Nowhere
Will-fully Misleading?
Niall Ferguson's Fog of War
Dissing the Electorate

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Hillary Pulls a Punch

Andrew Sullivan today flags a Clinton "attack ad" running in Wisconsin, but it's pretty mild stuff - a slap for refusing to debate there, followed by plug for "the only health care plan that covers every American, and the only economics plan that freezes foreclosures." Even the requisite Dark Lord picture of the opposition is virtually neutral (speaking mouth, slightly asymmetrical, vs. Hillary's smile).

This attack manque serves as a reminder that Obama seems to have succeeded in scaring off heavy duty Clinton artillery, at least for the time being. Maybe it won't last, but it's been a while now - since shortly after Jan. 21, when he went on Good Morning America to call out Bill for "mak[ing] statements that are not supported by the facts." As the nastiness ratcheted up in the debate next day and a day or two following, Obama started hitting Hillary for "do anything/say anything" politics -- using the smears as Exhibit A in his argument that Hillary embodies "the politics of the past," i.e. Rovian warfare. Then came the South Carolina backlash, and some muted penitence, and then the lovefest debate on Jan. 31 in LA.

In the smear-free zone, Obama has sharpened his 'clean' case that Hillary is scarred by the battles of the '90s and can't get much past 47% of the electorate. He's fought to a better-than-draw on Super Tuesday, and swept the board with eight straight wins since then.

Even if the fur starts to fly again, forcing that pause has done him a world of good.

Was Primary Colors a Prophecy?

Thinking this morning about Primary Colors, Joe Klein's roman a clef inspired by the Clinton '92 primary fight -- specifically the scene where the Clinton figure, Jack Stanton, stymies a primary opponent in a call-in radio confrontation with an artfully selective cite of his past pronouncements on Medicare. Thoughts then drifted to how, after inspiring an on-air heart attack in that rival, Stanton-Clinton finds himself faced with an oncoming tsunami as a charismatic former governor emerges as a last-minute candidate and becomes the golden boy with the big mo'. Then comes the oppo research, and the discovery that the new rival was stoned through much of his tenure as governor and indulged in gay sex with a shady local honcho to boot. Stanton agonizes, Clinton-on-the-brink-of-ROTC style, about The Right Thing to Do (conscience goaded by the suicide of an old ally who dug up the dirt), and hits on bringing the material to the candidate himself, telling him, if we found this, so will the Republicans.... Double win - thanks for being a boy scout, and goodbye rival.

Thought was, maybe this was about '08, not '92. The Clintons are up against it now. Water's rising, and the Texas-Ohio levee's looking like a New Orleans defense. What are they going to pull?

p.s. Stray echo while flipping pages: Stanton caught out in an early debate, and smug defiict hawk opponent pronounces: "This man will say anything to get elected." Guess it's not the most original comeback in politics.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

A Post-Atwater election?

Back in October, I wondered here whether the U.S. had become a post-democratic society. That is, a society in which marketing techniques have grown so successful that they overwhelm democratic discourse, so that even the most thoughtful, able and public interest-minded elected officials cannot develop good policy and legislation and cannot speak anything approaching the truth as they see it if they have any hope of being elected.

Sometimes now, with a little audacious hope, I wonder if we're coming out the opposite end -- that is, whether our democracy isn't developing some effective defenses to the consumer manipulations developed over the last forty years. Kos Diarist 2501 set me thinking this again with an interesting footnote to an Obama ad running in Ohio:

At the end, it does not just give Obama's web site and campaign phone number, but it also gives the correct date and times for voting in that state. I am sure that Obama's campaign knows that a prime vote suppression technique (especially often used against african-americans in poor neighborhoods) is to spread misinformation about the time and date of the election. While this is something that can help bring out more of Obama's (likely) voters in the primary, it is also a smart strategy to help get more Dem-likely voters out in the general election.

I'd like to think that we have seen this often enough--the push polling, the fake robocalling, the ugly last-minute smears-- that our candidates would know that developing pre-emptive strategies against such tactics would be a smart move. I'd like to see if we could start a discussion about this, collecting known past techniques, and also collecting ideas for smart ways to counter them. I think this Obama ad shows a very simple but smart way of combating one.

This call for "pre-emptive" strategies makes me think again that maybe this is the first 'post-Atwater,' or post-consumer or post-media election. In various ways, we may be developing antibodies against manipulative techniques that have worked for 2-4 decades: negative advertising, big-donor money, manipulation of mainstream media (there are so many voices, watchdogs and counter-watchdogs now), Penn-style microtargeting, to name a few. Not that these forces will go away or lose their power overnight, but there are new means of resistance -- and maybe a healthy scepticism and media saturation in the electorate.

Part of Obama's promise is to turn us past spin. On one level, that can't be any more true than that he'll end lobbying or partisanship. He's a skillful message masseuse himself. But note how he's stopped the Clinton smears in their tracks, at least for a brief spell. And how he's managed to dissect Hillary's limitations with a minimum of distortion. It's not past reason to hope that he could push through legislation to curb lobbying, and help discredit Rovian techniques, and dial down partisanship, which has historically ebbed and flowed.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Obama decries the 47% solution

While sharpening his case against Hillary Clinton as nominee in a rally in Virginia on Sunday, Obama fused his case for electability with a case for 'governability.' He's casting electability not as an end in itself, but as prelude to building a working majority to push through what's in large part a consensus agenda among Democrats.

Obama is treading a delicate line when on the attack. He has to steer away from the 'say anything, do anything' politics he decries while suggesting that Hillary is mired in those politics. Hence his inoculating praise of both McCain -- "a genuine American war hero" he said again on Sunday -- and of Hillary. Taking a cue from Joe Biden, Obama, as reported in today's New York Times, suggested that she was hampered by forces beyond her control:
“She’s a smart person, she’s a capable person, she would be a vast improvement over the incumbent,” he said in response to a question at a rally with 3,000 people, with 1,200 more listening in an overflow room. “What is also true is, I think it’s very hard for Senator Clinton to break out of the politics of the last 15 years.”
And again, distancing the person from the criticism:
“Senator Clinton starts off with 47 percent of the country against her,” he said in response to a question in Alexandria. “That’s a hard place to start.”
Then, with perhaps a degree of mano-a-mano payback, Obama effectively named that albatross he was hanging around Hillary's neck "Bill Clinton" -- getting more specific than ever about the limitations of Bill's legacy:
“Keep in mind, we had Bill Clinton as president when, in ’94, we lost the House, we lost the Senate, we lost governorships, we lost state houses,” he said. “And so, regardless of what policies they wanted to promote, they didn’t have a working majority to bring change about.”
Finally, completing the contrast, according to the Times (curiously this passage is in print but not online):
Mr. Obama said he would be able to create a working majority because he did not 'demonize' his opponents, and because he had been able to attract independents and Republicans.

So there's the case: the man who can win a broad majority can also defang the opposition.

Fact-and-fairness check: first, the Clintons were more demonized than demonizing. Second, the loss of a Democratic majority on Bill Clinton's watch was not mainly his fault. As Obama never tires of reminding us, "now" is the moment for Democrats to show "audacity," thanks to multiple Republican train wrecks.

As David Frum recently wrote with admirable clarity in the Financial Times, “The conservative ascendancy in American politics is coming to an end... If they eat right, exercise and wear seatbelts, today’s 20-somethings will be voting against George W. Bush deep into the 2060s. Most ominously[to Frum!], US polls show an ideological sea change: a desire for a more activist government, a loss of interest in the tax question and a shift to the left on most social issues (although not, interestingly, abortion)."

As Obama has also said in other contexts, this change in zeitgeist isn't about him. His case is that he's the one best equipped to seize it, but it's fair to say too that Bill Clinton played great defense when the tide was running the other way. Does that mean that Hillary can't build a working majority? Not necessarily. Is Obama much better positioned to do so? Very probably.

Related posts:
Obama brings it back to earth in Virginia
Feb. 5: Hillary's Speech was Better than Obama's
Obama's Metapolitics
Obama: Man, those Klinton Kids are Something
Obama Praises Clinton, and Buries Him

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Obama brings it back to earth in Virginia

Obama seems to have responded to warning bells that he was floating off on elevated campaign rhetoric like the Wizard of Oz in his balloon.

At the Virginia Jefferson-Jackson dinner, he led with a straight electability argument, tied to a more down-to-earth version of his change-our-politics argument, and followed by a laundry list of policy promises. None of it was new, but the proportions were changed. By word count, the policy section was approximately 40% of the speech, compared with slightly more than 10% on Super Tuesday. This speech was a business case for a candidate claiming he can win a broad mandate and use it to push through legislation less distorted by lobbying interests than any other.

Obama began by taking on the mantle of nominee presumptive, moving John McCain up from Exhibit B to Exhibit A of Honorable Policymaker Corrupted by Washington Politics. After the obligatory "good man" gesture, he hit him first on policy and then on process, i.e. flip-flopping for political gain:

Now, John McCain is a good man, an American hero, and we honor his half century of service to this nation. But in this campaign, he has made the decision to embrace the failed policies George Bush’s Washington.

He speaks of a hundred year war in Iraq and sees another on the horizon with Iran. He once opposed George Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthiest few who don’t need them and didn’t ask for them. He said they were too expensive and unwise. And he was absolutely right. [McCain has actually spoken of a 100 year troop presence in Iraq, along the lines of our presence in Japan and Korea, with whom we're not exactly at war, but never mind...]

But somewhere along the line, the wheels came off the Straight Talk Express because he now he supports the very same tax cuts he voted against. This is what happens when you spend too long in Washington. Politicians don’t say what they mean and they don’t mean what they say. And that is why in this election, our party cannot stand for business-as-usual in Washington. The Democratic Party must stand for change.

This time Hillary was Exhibit B of Politician Corrupted by Process -- the better to demonstrate that she was like McCain, or maybe a bit worse with regard to politics if not policy:

It’s a choice between debating John McCain about lobbying reform with a nominee who’s taken more money from lobbyists than he has, or doing it with a campaign that hasn’t taken a dime of their money because we’ve been funded by you – the American people.

That allowed a segue to the electability argument - brought home to the local audience:

And it’s a choice between taking on John McCain with Republicans and Independents already united against us, or running against him with a campaign that’s united Americans of all parties around a common purpose.

There is a reason why the last six polls in a row have shown that I’m the strongest candidate against John McCain. It’s because we’ve done better with Independents in almost every single contest we’ve had. It’s because we’ve won in more Red States and swing states that the next Democratic nominee needs to win in November.

Virginia Democrats know how important this is. That’s how Mark Warner won in this state. That’s how Tim Kaine won in this state. That’s how Jim Webb won in this state. And if I am your nominee, this is one Democrat who plans to campaign in Virginia and win in Virginia this fall.

While arguing electability would normally come across as politics-as-usual, Obama's casting his as hardheaded idealism. His appeal to independents and Republicans is not born of triangulation; his policy pronouncements are liberal straight down the line. That's the best argument for his straight-talk pitch: he's succeeding beyond his liberal base in spite of his policies, not because of them.

Next came the policy prescriptions, nicely salted with arguments as to why he'd be able to get them effected -- including past accomplishments (expanding health coverage and passing middle class tax cuts in Illinois), others' endorsements (Kennedy's statement of faith in his health care commitment), quick-draw contrast with Hillary (why mandates don't help), and promises to get things done in a timely matter (health plan passed in first term, yearly minimum wage hikes).

He ended with a deft two-step that syncs up two halves of his argument: that Democrats have the right policy prescriptions, but that Democrats have been almost as corrupted by political process (over some undetermined period of time) as Republicans have. His solution, he admits implicitly (and refreshingly), is as much a product of the historical moment as of his own abilities: because the electorate has swung left, Democrats can come out of their defensive crouch and advance an unabashedly liberal agenda. Dropping the defensiveness is itself a cure for "broken politics," first because it means being less beholden to polling, and second because reducing the power of lobbyists is a natural Democratic platform plank, since Democrats by creed defend the poor and middle class against the monied interests that wield the vast bulk of lobbying power.

Spelling all that out would make for dull speaking. Obama does it by emphasizing that 'this is our moment" and by reminding us that "hope" has been realized by Democratic leaders in other such moments:

This is our moment. This is our time for change. Our party – the Democratic Party – has always been at its best when we’ve led not by polls, but by principle; not by calculation, but by conviction; when we’ve called all Americans to a common purpose – a higher purpose.

We are the party of Jefferson, who wrote the words that we are still trying to heed – that all of us are created equal – that all of us deserve the chance to pursue our happiness.

We’re the party of Jackson, who took back the White House for the people of this country.

We’re the party of a man who overcame his own disability to tell us that the only thing we had to fear was fear itself; who faced down fascism and liberated a continent from tyranny.

And we’re the party of a young President who asked what we could do for our country, and the challenged us to do it.

That is who we are. That is the Party that we need to be, and can be, if we cast off our doubts, and leave behind our fears, and choose the America that we know is possible. Because there is a moment in the life of every generation, if it is to make its mark on history, when its spirit has to come through, when it must choose the future over the past, when it must make its own change from the bottom up.

This is our moment. This is our message – the same message we had when we were up, and when we were down. The same message that we will carry all the way to the convention. And in seven months time we can realize this promise; we can claim this legacy; we can choose new leadership for America. Because there is nothing we cannot do if the American people decide it is time.

This time, Obama managed to make hope seem pragmatic.

Related posts:
Feb 10: Obama decries the 47% solution
Feb. 5: Hillary's Speech was Better than Obama's
Obama's Metapolitics
Obama: Man, those Klinton Kids are Something
Obama Praises Clinton, and Buries Him

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Back from the Shadows: Can Gates Steer the Surge?

Fred Kaplan's Times Magazine profile of Robert Gates includes a fascinating moment in which Gates, that veteran of Cold War consensus coursing, takes satisfaction from working his middle course magic on the Democratic presidential candidates:

At last summer's debate on Iraq, Cheney urged the president to resist the Democrats' call for troop withdrawals and to prolong the surge indefinitely. But the Join Chiefs argued that they didn't have the troops to sustain the surge beyond the summer of 2008. Gates made a more political point: that if there were no prospects for gradual but substantial troop withdrawals, popular support for the war would evaporate, and the next president would probably pull out all the troops as quickly as possible, resulting in Iraq's potential collapse. On the plane from Fort Hood, Gates spelled out his position. "We need bipartisan support for a prolonged presence in Iraq," he said. "But to do that, we need to demonstrate that we're drawing down to lower levels." He recalled watching one of the early Democratic presidential debates. The moderator asked the candidates if they would promise to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq by 2013, the end of the first term. The three candidates with the highest poll ratings all declined to make that pledge. Gates remembered saying to himself, 'My work here is done."

That satisfaction is sure to drive proponents of a quick withdrawal bats. But those appalled by McCain's talk of a 100-year presence and by Bush's attempt to lock in the infrastructure of a long-term occupation should look closely at Gates' more qualified and nuanced support for the surge, and the long experience that brought him to it. Points to consider:

1) If Gates seeks to steer a Democratic Congress and likely future Democratic President away from a quick troop withdrawal, he also seeks to channel Democratic pressure to help force political action on the Iraqis. Very early in his tenure, when Bush partisans were crying treason at Democrats pushing for a quick withdrawal, Gates said that Congressional debate on war financing put useful pressure on the Iraqi government.

2) Gates is a master at deploying countervailing pressures in this manner. In Afghanistan, he is working on both the Europeans and the Pakistanis to win more effective support for war against al Qaeda and the Taliban. Frustrated by the unwillingness of NATO countries including Germany to place troops at risk, Gates has been uncharacteristically confrontational, charging that some countries are not willing to fight and die, and he is now is appealing directly to the European public not to lump the war in Afghanistan together with the war in Iraq as an American misadventure, but rather to recognize that conditions in Afghanistan directly affect their security. "'I think they combine the two,'" he said, according the AP(2/8). "'Many of them I think have a problem with our involvement in Iraq and project that to Afghanistan and don't understand the very different — for them — very different kind of threat' posed by al-Qaida in Afghanistan, as opposed to the militant group in Iraq that goes by the same name and is thought to be led by foreign terrorists linked to al-Qaida." There is a remarkable implicit admission here that Europeans are justified in considering Iraq an American debacle but that they should differentiate and recognize Afghanistan as a core NATO mission. When Gates is confrontational, the pressure is highly calculated and tempered by recognition of opposing perspectives.

On the other side of the Afghan border, January 25, the FT reported Gates saying that the U.S. would consider joint military operations with the Pakistanis inside Pakistan if asked - notwithstanding that we haven't been asked. “We remain ready, willing and able to assist the Pakistanis and to partner with them to provide additional training, to conduct joint operations, should they desire to do so.”

Gates does not want to lose in Iraq -- to see it revert to full-scale civil war. But his primary focus is al Qaeda. So he understands the imperative to reduce our presence in Iraq as quickly as possible. The future viability of the military also requires a drawdown. Kaplan reports that Gates told a Texas Chamber of Commerce meeting, "The people who encourage young people to go into the military are less positive than they used to be...Until we reach the point where joining the Army doesn't mean an automatic assignment to Iraq, we'll have a challenge."

3) Gates has also played point-counterpoint with regard Iran. According to Kaplan, Gates was a major force in getting the NIE on Iran released. But having used that bludgeon to avert the catastrophe of a preemptive strike on Iran, he is now tacking back quite sensibly and "has since publicly stressed the less assuring aspects of the estimate -- that Iran is still enriching uranium and may resume the weapons program at any time" (see Gates Validates, 12/5/07 ).

4) Triangulation, Gates style, is rooted in his experience in five prior administrations, particularly his role as Deputy National Security Advisor under Brent Scowcroft in George W. Bush's Administration. Gates is not particularly modest in portraying Scowcroft and himself as masters of orchestrating debate between national security principals, honest brokers effectively controlling presidential access, and forgers of administration consensus. While Gates emphasizes trust and open debate, Scowcroft, in Kaplan's article, characterizes his own role and Gates' as one of, shall we say, steerage: "Before his meetings, Bob would come in and ask, 'How do we want this meeting to end up?' He and I would figure out what we wanted. And sure enough, it would end up exactly that way. And everybody loved him. They all came out of the meeting thinking that they'd come up with the solution." (One of the happy campers in the N.S.C. Deputies Committee that Gates chaired was a certain Paul Wolfowitz. And one of the "strong individuals who ran State, Defense, CIA, and the other key institutions of national security" who, according to Gates, "trusted Scowcroft as no other National Security Adviser has been trusted -- to represent them and their views to the President fairly, to report to him on meetings accurately, to facilitate rather than block their access to the President" was Dick Cheney.)

5) More broadly, Gates' approach to policymaking is rooted in his view of the breakup of the Soviet Union as a bipartisan success spanning several decades. In his book, he portrays each of the five presidents he worked under as tacking a course between hawks and doves among their senior advisors, to varying degrees maintaining military pressure while seizing any negotiating opportunities available. He gives Carter ample credit for beginning the Soviet unraveling process - by his emphasis on human rights, and by his late beginning of a military buildup and support for Afghan resistance. He also recognizes the role of Congress: "The obstructionism and complicating role of Congress...did have a useful function. I sat in the Situation Room in secret meetings for nearly twenty years under five Presidents, and all I can say is that some awfully crazy schemes might well have been approved had everyone present not known and expect hard questions, debate, and criticism from the Hill. And when, on a few occasions, Congress was kept in the dark, and such schemes did proceed, it was nearly always to the lasting regret of the Presidents involved. Working with the Congress was never easy for Presidents, but then, under the Constitution, it wasn't supposed to be."

6) Gates bolsters his credibility by taking stances that don't boost his institutional interests. Time reports this week that he is "putting a damper on pressure from his own Air Force for Congress to buy more F-22 fighters ." The F-22 is a high-tech fighter "principally for use in 'near-peer' combat,'" i.e., for eventual combat with China, which has replaced the Soviet Union as a prospective major league foe. Gates wants to buy half the number his generals recommend. Late last year, in a speech at Kansas State University, he astonished Pentagon observers by telling students that the U.S. needed to boost the State Department's budget -- that is, redress the balance between hard power and soft power.

For all Gates' skillful piloting, Kaplan rightly notes that there may be no middle course in Iraq:

[Gates] added that it's 'important to send the Iraqis a message: that we're going to be coming home, and it's time for them to step up to the plate.' But on his trip to Baghdad, he was confronted with the gnawing question: If the Iraqis don't, or can't, 'step up to the plate,' should we come home anyway? And if the troops don't start coming home at a faster clip, if they stay embroiled in sectarian conflicts that the Iraqis do nothing to settle, what happens to the bipartisan support that Gates has sought as his highest priority? Gates is very skillful at controlling a bureaucracy, but a war is something else. As Gates himself said on the plan from Fort Hood, once a conflict starts, the statesmen -- people like him -- lose control.

In other words, to Powell's pottery barn rule -- if you break it you own it -- add the Humpty Dumpty rule -- if you break it, you may not be able to fix it. One irony that may thwart Gates is that his book, published in 1995, describes in detail a foreign policy practice that worked across five administrations -- contentiously and creakily, but effectively -- and that, in his telling, worked most effectively under George H. W. Bush. It also frames perfectly, by negation (years before the fact), how that practice broke down under W., as the Cheney lauded as a team player by Gates hijacked the decision-making process. Gates may have done much to repair that process. But as Kaplan suggests, he may not be able to control the outcome of decisions made while the process was broken.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Feb. 5: Hillary's Speech was Better than Obama's

As a supporter of Obama and admirer of his rhetoric and the approach to politics underpinning it, I must say that I think Hillary gave the better speech on Feb. 5.

Both speeches were effective expressions of the speaker's philosophy of governance. Ultimately I think Obama's metapolitics - his claim that we can't craft effective policy until we fix our political process -- is what's required at the moment. Nonetheless...

Hillary, in the face of troubling returns, came out with impressive energy and ebullience. It's become a cliche that she relies on wonkish policy prescriptions, and she was indeed quite specific about what she wants government to do for various groups (mortgagees, veterans, students).

Her focus was narrower than Obama's. But she also concentrated fire more effectively on the Republicans than Obama did. Her attack had the pithy anaphoric logic of Bill Clinton's 2004 convention speech, with its refrain of "vote for them" (if you like destructive policies a, b, and c). Hillary's trope was a variation on 'more of the same':

Well, the Republicans want eight more years of the same. They cuts for the wealthy and they say, "Why not more?" They see $9 trillion in debt and say, "Why not trillions more?" They see five years in Iraq and say, "Why not 100 more?"

Well...they've got until January 20th, 2009 and not one day more.

Then the kicker, an effective projection of Hillary's pre-emptive 'don't tread on me' message to Republicans (and those who doubt whether she can beat them):

Now, we know the Republicans won't give up the White House without a fight. Well, let me be clear -- I won't let anyone swift boat this country's future.

Her peroration also had the rhetorical grace of strong repetition. Springing off the Statue of Liberty's "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free," Hillary converts it to a "scope of work" statement:

So today we say with one voice -- give us the child who wants to learn, give us the people in need of work, give us the veterans who need our care. We say give us this economy to rebuild and this war to end. Give us this nation to heal, this world to lead, this moment to seize.

The "us" here is of course a royal plural. That one voice is Hillary's, as the main effort is Hillary's. The speech expresses Hillary's p/maternalism: politics is "about the people who have shared their problems with me, looking for solutions."

There's a non-royal 'we' in the speech too. A litany of effective policies carried out in 'the America I see" ends with, "That's the America I see and that's the America we will build together." But the dominant chord is what Hillary can do for her country.

Obama's speech is already famous for a very different 'we', a we that is not royal but touches on the mystical:

Change will not come if we wait for some other person or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. (Cheers, applause.) We are the change that we seek. We are the hope of those boys who have so little, who've been told that they cannot have what they dream, that they cannot be what they imagine. Yes, they can. (Cheers, applause.)

We are the hope of the father who goes to work before dawn and lies awake with doubt that tells him he cannot give his children the same opportunities that someone gave him. Yes, he can.

(Crowd says in unison, "Yes, he can.")

We are the hope of the woman who hears that her city will not be rebuilt, that she cannot somehow claim the life that was swept away in a terrible storm. Yes, she can.

(Crowd says in unison, "Yes, she can.")

We are the hope of the future, the answer to the cynics who tell us our house must stand divided, that we cannot come together, that we cannot remake this world as it should be.

Some, confronted with this rhetoric, have cried a halt. Joe Klein today decries in "Inspiration vs. Substance":

And yet there was something just a wee bit creepy about the mass messianism — "We are the ones we've been waiting for" — of the Super Tuesday speech and the recent turn of the Obama campaign. "This time can be different because this campaign for the presidency of the United States of America is different. It's different not because of me. It's different because of you." That is not just maddeningly vague but also disingenuous: the campaign is entirely about Obama and his ability to inspire.

"It's not about me" is not disingenuous; it's paradoxical. Obama has come this far because he has the audacity to ask from the outset for a broad mandate. The power he seeks to 'transform our politics' depends on winning broad-based, lasting support . It's about him insofar as he asks, but it's about us insofar as we answer.

It's not hokum, either. The support he seeks cannot be won, he's told us, without him telling the truth consistently, and listening to all constituencies, and negotiating with all constituencies. Obama's political career began inside out, in organizing -- that is, asking disenfranchised groups what they needed most, and figuring out with them how to get the political establishment to respond. The career drama in Dreams from My Father is the process by which he learned to ask various constituencies (residents of the Altgelt projects) what they needed, and go for that, rather than try to determine what was needed himself. It's the listening skills, and the negotiating skills -- and the requisite political infighting skills -- that he's asking us to believe he can use to bring in enough voters and enough Republican lawmakers to pass an unabashedly liberal policy agenda.

Still, if I had only these two speeches to go on, I might have voted for Hillary, as I was inclined to do in the fall. On this night, Obama was a little too much MLK, not enough Hillary Clinton. His Denver speech packed in more specific policy prescriptions - and a much sharper attack on Hillary's career and campaign. Those attacks are important, because they bring him back to the process skills -- leadership skills -- that are at the core of his pitch. He's got to make sure he doesn't take off on us like the Wizard of Oz in his balloon.

Related posts:
Obama's Metapolitics
Obama: Man, those Klinton Kids are Something
Obama Praises Clinton, and Buries Him

The Gray Lady's Fainting Spell

The New York Times editorial board is shocked, shocked that some Obama supporters say they would sit out the general if Hillary is the nominee, and that some Republicans would rather lose the White House than see McCain win. "That is not the way democracy is supposed to work," they intone.

This is a head-scratcher. Does the Times board think that lockstep party unity is "the way democracy is supposed to work"?

Reality check: many Americans of all political stripes have long said they would not vote for Hillary under any circumstances; the Dem primaries are drawing record turnouts; every second debate has been a lovefest; Democratic voters as a body seem ecstatic with the choice between two strong candidates; and in the runup to Super Tuesday, huge numbers of voters were undecided almost down to the wire. Americans as a whole seem euphoric about the way democracy is working this season.

True that there's a real risk now that Hillary and Obama will damage each other as competition grinds on. Billary may be tempted to get Rovian again, and Obama has been increasingly explicit and specific in arguing that Hillary is part of the country's metapolitical problem and therefore can't build the kind of working majority that he can. But as dday has pointed out, this has been a relatively restrained primary battle so far.

Why is the Times wringing its hands over the animosities inevitably stirred by a competitive race? Is their craving for a Hillary cakewalk stronger than Hillary's own?

Related posts:
Obama's Metapolitics
Obama and Hillary: March 2003
When Hillary went MIA on Iraq
Return of the Clintonian Repressed
Obama: Man, those Klinton Kids are Something
Obama Praises Clinton, and Buries Him

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Present shock

This stray factoid from The Wall Street Journal's post-election coverage gave me a little defamiliarization buzz:

Former Sen. John Edwards's departure from the Democratic race last week may have helped Mr. Obama with white males, who made up more than a quarter of Tuesday's Democratic voters from coast to coast.
100 years ago, white males would have made up about 98% of U.S. voters, democratic or otherwise. And 100% of candidates, needless to say.

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.