January 8, 2008

Save the drama for Obama

Filed under: Laws and Sausages — tomemos @ 11:59 am

(Updated below)

(title courtesy of Bad Gods)

Here’s how it went down. First, Hungarian Great Bela Tarr, who resides in Iowa, posted his predictions for the caucuses at his blog, Days of Industry (previously plugged in this space). His Democratic predictions went like this: Obama 40, Edwards 26, Clinton 24. Having seen polls showing a dead heat between the three candidates, that struck me as unlikely, so I posted a comment:

I think we’re seeing a little extravagant optimism here—if Clinton does that badly, I will wear the silliest hat I own everywhere I go for two days.

(I used the word “optimism” to reflect HGBT’s dislike of Clinton, not my own; see below.) HGBT asked if that was a promise, and if there would be pictures; I replied that yes, if Clinton finished in third with more than a fifteen-point deficit, as the post predicted, I would honor my promise and take pictures.

Well, you know how it actually shook out: 38/30/29. Obama did better, and Clinton worse, than I predicted, but she still finished well above the 15-point gap I specified. Nevertheless, HGBT had the temerity to send an e-mail to, like, everyone, with the subject line “The question is: will Tom man up?”

I did not wear my hat everywhere (or anywhere) I went; I consider myself vindicated by the results, if just barely. Nevertheless, the exchange (and the election itself, obviously) forced me to clarify my thoughts about the candidates, and I thought I would share those. And I did end up making a concession regarding my vow—read on for details.

Here’s the thing: I don’t hate Hillary Clinton, and I don’t even dislike her. I hold her Iraq vote against her, definitely, and I hold her Kyl-Lieberman vote against her even more, because it confirms the suspicion that she will make poor foreign policy decisions in order to appear tough. At the same time, I don’t know if the best answer to the problem of political pressure is to support someone who has never had to face it, at least not in an environment like the post-9/11 Congress. (Let’s not forget that Obama conveniently wasn’t present for the Kyl-Lieberman vote.) As for Clinton’s rich family background and business connections, I take the force of that, and it does affect my opinion, but … well, hell, what were JFK’s populist credentials? What were FDR’s? And I do think experience matters. Clinton has had specific tests—the test of living and fighting through the right wing hate machine, the test of winning a Senate race contested by someone other than Alan Keyes—that are going to be vital for Democratic presidential candidates and presidents.

So on the intangibles and symbolics, it’s a wash—Obama makes me happy, Clinton makes me confident. On the issues, I see very little difference, and what I do see (the health care proposal, mainly) favors Clinton. I like what Gail Collins said in the Times about the two candidates’ positions on “reforming health care or getting out of Iraq or stopping global warming”: “We all know there’s only the thinnest of lines between Obama and Clinton on these matters—a line that would instantly be obliterated by the mangle that is known as the United States Congress.” Honestly, listening to and watching the debates has left me without any political preference—both are equally good and equally bad on the exact same issues. Is Obama super-principled on gay marriage, for instance? Why, no; this ain’t The West Wing. (Though I do sincerely think his joking response to questions about his youthful drug use are positive and a good sign.)

I also don’t buy the argument that the Right’s hatred of Hillary is itself a reason not to support her, because (the reasoning goes) it will make her impossible to elect. Aside from the inadvisability on nominating candidates based on what the Right claims to want (“Can anyone say ‘Don’t throw me in that briar patch!’?” one commenter notes), people need to understand that whoever the Democrats nominate is going to be treated with absolute bile and hatred, period. Hillary’s learned this already, and Obama, if he’s nominated, will learn it too; I hope he’s ready. Glenn Greenwald puts it well, in a post that HGBT also linked to:

There’s a prevailing sense that Obama is not as offensive to the right-wing GOP faction as other Democratic and liberal candidates in the past have been, or that he’s less “divisive” among them than Hillary. And that’s true: for now, while he tries to take down the individual who has long provoked the most intense hatred — literally — among the Right. But anyone who doesn’t think that that’s all going to change instantaneously if Obama is the nominee hasn’t been watching how this faction operates over the last 20 years. Hatred is their fuel. Just look at the bottomless personal animus they managed to generate over an anemic, mundane, inoffensive figure like John Kerry. At their Convention, they waved signs with band-aids mocking his purple hearts while cheering on two combat-avoiders.

On the subject of divisiveness…I wish Obama would talk less about the need for bipartisan cooperation. This has manifested itself, for instance, in his campaign’s implication that it should “not exclude” homophobes, or his suggestion that there’s a Social Security crisis. Here’s what I believe: even in a period of comity, partisanship and bipartisanship are neutral methods of achieving political goals; in a given situation, you use whichever one will work best in the short- and long-term. As long as you’re following legal and ethical standards, partisanship is no worse than its opposite. Luckily, perhaps, compromise and bipartisanship are usually necessary to achieve at least some of your goals, so the tyranny of the majority is avoided. But bipartisanship isn’t its own reward.Now, we are not living in a period of comity: the Republicans are not going to be a bipartisan party for the foreseeable future, so a vow not to be partisan is the same as surrender. “…[F]undamental change can’t be accomplished by a politician who shuns partisanship,” says Paul Krugman. Or, going back to Gail Collins:

If Clinton wants to be Franklin (and Eleanor) Roosevelt in this campaign, and John Edwards is channeling William Jennings Bryan, Obama is, for all his early opposition to Iraq, the most conservative visionary in the group. Big change is hardly ever accomplished without political warfare. When the red and blue states join together and all Americans of good will march hand-in-hand to a mutually agreed upon destiny, the place they’re going to end up would probably look pretty much like now with more health insurance.

My great hope (and in fact, I’ve come to believe it is true) is that Obama is using “an end to partisan bickering,” combined with “change,” as a smokescreen for what will be a partisan, liberal (not to say progressive) agenda. You’ll remember that Bush did exactly the same thing in 2000: “a uniter, not a divider.” You can’t argue with success: Bush not only convinced moderates that he was one of them, but fooled many progressives, including this one, that there was little difference between himself and Gore and thus convinced us to support Nader or just drop out. Then he was inaugurated, and the rest is history. If Obama gets to the White House and starts a New New Deal, then great. I’m not going to go crazy for him out of the suspicion that that will happen, though.

So, it saddens me to watch Clinton being taken down, because I think she’s been treated unfairly by all sides of the political spectrum. (Maybe she’ll win today and make this obsolete, but I doubt it.)* And the nasty reactions to The Laugh, The Cleavage, and (recently and most hypocritically) The Getting Emotional prove that some of this unfairness is based in sexism. John Edwards has lost my vote, for instance—his opportunistic tag-teaming with Obama following Iowa, topped off by his crypto-sexism, reflects a sliminess (born out of desperation, perhaps, but still) that bugs me much more than anything Clinton has done. (Digby has a great post about the sexism leveled against Clinton, and how it’s bad not only for Clinton herself, but for all progressives.)


I am excited by Obama. I am excited about his moving rhetoric and the enthusiasm he seems to be awakening all over the country (another record turnout today, apparently; it makes my heart beat faster). And as regards my vow at Days of Industry: while the letter of the law is on my side, I was quite surprised that Obama won so decisively, and I feel the need to reflect that. So, in that spirit, here’s me in “the silliest hat I own” (NOTE: hat is silly in context, not in its own right):

*Update (1/8): Come around children, and hear the song about a guy named Tom who was always wrong! Clinton won tonight, which I’m glad of, if only because it means my vote will mean something on February 5th. Now, if only I knew who I was voting for… (By the way, John Edwards, when I said you lost my vote, I only meant, y’know, for the time being. There’s still time for one of the other two to piss me off more.)



  1. you might appreciate joan walsh’s take on obama. she comes to some similar conclusions:

    Comment by anna — January 8, 2008 @ 1:01 pm

  2. I fundamentally disagree with your (and greenwald’s, that scold!) assertion that Obama will be just as vulnerable as Hillary to smear campaigns in a general election. In this instance his lack of so-called experience works for him – all you can say is that he doesn’t have much. There aren’t many votes to tie him to, no major blunders from years back that could come back to haunt him (unlike Kerry whose decades in the Senate gave the Bush team a huge cache of ammo). In reality, though, he only has about a few years less experience than Clinton. As a Senator at least. The problem with Clinton is that she’s running on Bill’s record, or more precisely her experience weathering the right-wing hate machine as a first lady – not as a Senator. This is precisely why Obama and Edwards were so successfully able to “tag-team” her in that debate. She isn’t the candidate for change, she’s the candidate for restoring Clintonism (which, honestly, given his penchant for opportunistic triangulation and compromise are you really in favor of? Also, while I’m in this parenthetical, I’ll concede that Alan Keyes is a pathetic opponent, but Obama was firmly ahead in the polls before his previous opponent dropped out and Clinton’s election to the Senate was hardly bruising).

    Moreover, every poll I’ve seen has independents and Republicans overwhelmingly favoring Obama over Clinton. This speaks not only to electability (I firmly believe a lot of people who voted Republican in the past have a strong potential to jump ship this go-round), but by gathering independents under his tent can move the political fulcrum leftward – it’s a way of repositioning, at least for a little bit, what we think of as “left” or “right.” What it comes down to for me is that, Obama can potentially re-imagine and re-draw the political landscape, whereas Clinton would just seem to entrench the one we already have. I think that configuration could be good for progressive causes – note how many evangelicals and conservatives, like Mike Huckabee (who, conceded, has some serious issues elsewhere) are concerned with issues that were once meat and potatoes for the democrats: healthcare, poverty, social justice, global warming etc. I’d like to think at least that Obama’s “purple state” rhetoric reflects his desire to unite people not around political ideology but around pressing problems that need solving. I just worry that Clinton would reignite old animosities and be a replay of the partisanship that marred the 1990s. You’re right, there’s not much substantive difference between either of them (other than the foreign policy ones you’ve already mentioned – which heavily favor Obama). There is, however, a huge personality difference. And that’s what counts.

    We’ve had this argument before in various guises, but I’ll just say it again here for the record: we are not going to get a solution to any of those problems with a hyper-partisan congress. Partisanship and hyper-partisanship may be politically neutral methods in a vacuum, but their long-term effect is devastating. Just look at where we are now, not even 14 years after the “Republican Revolution,” which was marked by intense partisanship. I would hardly say that the effect of the Republican’s efforts to use partisanship to achieve political ends was neutral.

    Comment by Brandon — January 8, 2008 @ 8:03 pm

  3. Brandon, in terms of Obama’s attackability: a paragraph that I took out of this post before publishing it talked about one of Obama’s chief vulnerabilities to right wing attack, which is, to put it bluntly, being a black man with a foreign-sounding name. This has already begun, not only on the fringes (the Greenwald post notes that Free Republic drops “Barack” and calls him “Hussein Obama”; expect to see more of that), but also from mainstream commentators: the Washington Post’s “reporting” on the rumors that Obama is a Muslim; Bill Bennett’s statement on CNN that Obama shows African-Americans that they don’t have to talk about race. Whoever is nominated will be subjected to the ugliest attacks that anyone can think of.

    The implications of your claim that Obama’s inexperience is an asset are troubling to me. Obama’s a great candidate, but if the right-wing offensive is so effective that we can only nominate Democrats without an extensive resume (hence, no “major blunders from years back”), then that’s not going to be sustainable for very long.

    You seem to be complimenting Obama for being (or promising to be) bipartisan, while simultaneously criticizing the Clintons for “opportunistic triangulation and compromise.” This seems like a contradiction to me; can you think of a more bipartisan president than Bill Clinton?

    Any strategy taken to its extreme is likely to be counterproductive in the long run, and I like your term “hyper-partisanship” for this. You’re right that hyper-partisanship wasn’t very good for the Republicans in the long run, though they accomplished a lot of their agenda over twelve years, including for the half that a Democrat was president. On the other hand, the Democrats have pointedly refused to be partisan since 2006—never filibustering, never opposing a nominee, never taking a stand on the war even with a clear mandate—and that hasn’t worked so well either. I don’t want the hypothetical Democratic president and strong Democratic majority to be hyper-partisan like the Republicans, but that’s never come close to happening—Democrats are much more likely to be equivocating and feckless than dogmatic and uncompromising. So to see a leading Democratic candidate touting compromise as a strength doesn’t excite me at all; bipartisan Democrats are a dime a dozen.

    Comment by tomemos — January 8, 2008 @ 11:20 pm

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