Monday, January 07, 2008

Does Barack Obama have a Plan B to fall back on after Plan A--having us all get together and rise above partisanship--doesn't work?


"Anyone who thinks that the next president can achieve real change without bitter confrontation is living in a fantasy world. Which brings me to a big worry about Mr. Obama: in an important sense, he has in effect become the anti-change candidate."
--Paul Krugman, in his Dec. 17 NYT column (see below)

We're coming up on a year since David Sirota wrote about his problem with the premise of Barack Obama's candidacy. The old link to the column now gets you only to the current repository of Sirotablog columns, but perhaps you can figure out how to access pre-2008 columns. (We're looking for the one from Feb. 10, 2007.) I think, though, that the two chunks I extracted at the time will make the point. We'll come back to them in a moment. [Thanks to commenter Leslie for cunningly digging up a link to the HuffPost version of the column, "I Want to Believe."]

It appears that Senator Obama is striking a chord with his appeal to "post-partisanship." Who wouldn't like to see an end to the vicious, violent partisanship of our times? (I'll tell you who: the ignorance-worshipping sociopaths of the Far-to-the-Nth-Degree Right who created that violent partisanship--utterly deliberately, I believe, for the express purpose of taking over the government and imposing their wingnut sociopathology on the rest of the country. Which come to think of it, they've done.)

It sounds lovely. Who doesn't like to feel good? My problem with most "feel good" movements is that they aren't based on anything real to feel good about.

It's hard to see how Senator Obama's stratospheric soar above partisanship can work. It's based on the assumption that the reason we haven't all gotten together and worked all this stuff out together in a spirit of harmony is because nobody ever thought of it. Does anyone really believe this?

Apparently so. But while there are certainly narrow issues--important ones, but narrow ones--where such compromises might be thrashed out in a dialogue unpolluted by the demagoguery of the Far Right, there aren't all that many such issues, and hardly any of the really crucial issues qualify.

As David Sirota wrote back in February 2007:
There is no "third way" or "consensus" way out of many of our most pressing problems, as Obama seems to believe. Why? Because many of our most pressing problems are zero-sum: someone is benefiting from the status quo, and to change the status quo means someone may lose something. And if you don't believe me, just take a quick look at history. . . . [Emphasis in the original]

In the Beltway, [Obama] is surrounded by old political hands who, like most people there, likely try to tamp down any of his confrontational, power-challenging instincts for fear they might offend ruling class sensibilities.

More recently Paul Krugman wrote in a similar vein. I thought we could excerpt a few pithy moments from this column, but looking at it again after these several weeks, I find it even more incisive than I remembered--all pith, nothing skippable:
December 17, 2007
Big Table Fantasies

Broadly speaking, the serious contenders for the Democratic nomination are offering similar policy proposals--the dispute over health care mandates notwithstanding. But there are large differences among the candidates in their beliefs about what it will take to turn a progressive agenda into reality.

At one extreme, Barack Obama insists that the problem with America is that our politics are so "bitter and partisan," and insists that he can get things done by ushering in a "different kind of politics."

At the opposite extreme, John Edwards blames the power of the wealthy and corporate interests for our problems, and says, in effect, that America needs another F.D.R.--a polarizing figure, the object of much hatred from the right, who nonetheless succeeded in making big changes.

Over the last few days Mr. Obama and Mr. Edwards have been conducting a long-range argument over health care that gets right to this issue. And I have to say that Mr. Obama comes off looking, well, naive.

The argument began during the Democratic debate, when the moderator--Carolyn Washburn, the editor of The Des Moines Register--suggested that Mr. Edwards shouldn't be so harsh on the wealthy and special interests, because "the same groups are often responsible for getting things done in Washington."

Mr. Edwards replied, "Some people argue that we're going to sit at a table with these people and they're going to voluntarily give their power away. I think it is a complete fantasy; it will never happen."

This was pretty clearly a swipe at Mr. Obama, who has repeatedly said that health reform should be negotiated at a "big table" that would include insurance companies and drug companies.

On Saturday Mr. Obama responded, this time criticizing Mr. Edwards by name. He declared that "We want to reduce the power of drug companies and insurance companies and so forth, but the notion that they will have no say-so at all in anything is just not realistic."

Hmm. Do Obama supporters who celebrate his hoped-for ability to bring us together realize that "us" includes the insurance and drug lobbies?

O.K., more seriously, it's actually Mr. Obama who's being unrealistic here, believing that the insurance and drug industries--which are, in large part, the cause of our health care problems--will be willing to play a constructive role in health reform. The fact is that there's no way to reduce the gross wastefulness of our health system without also reducing the profits of the industries that generate the waste.

As a result, drug and insurance companies--backed by the conservative movement as a whole--will be implacably opposed to any significant reforms. And what would Mr. Obama do then? "I'll get on television and say Harry and Louise are lying," he says. I'm sure the lobbyists are terrified.

As health care goes, so goes the rest of the progressive agenda. Anyone who thinks that the next president can achieve real change without bitter confrontation is living in a fantasy world.

Which brings me to a big worry about Mr. Obama: in an important sense, he has in effect become the anti-change candidate.

There's a strong populist tide running in America right now. For example, a recent Democracy Corps survey of voter discontent found that the most commonly chosen phrase explaining what's wrong with the country was "Big businesses get whatever they want in Washington."

And there's every reason to believe that the Democrats can win big next year if they run with that populist tide. The latest evidence came from focus groups run by both Fox News and CNN during last week's Democratic debate: both declared Mr. Edwards the clear winner.

But the news media recoil from populist appeals. The Des Moines Register, which endorsed Mr. Edwards in 2004, rejected him this time on the grounds that his "harsh anti-corporate rhetoric would make it difficult to work with the business community to forge change."

And while The Register endorsed Hillary Clinton, the prime beneficiary of media distaste for populism has clearly been Mr. Obama, with his message of reconciliation. According to a recent survey by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, Mr. Obama's coverage has been far more favorable than that of any other candidate.

So what happens if Mr. Obama is the nominee?

He will probably win--but not as big as a candidate who ran on a more populist platform. Let's be blunt: pundits who say that what voters really want is a candidate who makes them feel good, that they want an end to harsh partisanship, are projecting their own desires onto the public.

And nothing Mr. Obama has said suggests that he appreciates the bitterness of the battles he will have to fight if he does become president, and tries to get anything done.

As it happens, Krugman returned to this theme just today, in what I think is going to be one of his most-quoted columns, called "From Hype to Fear." After taking note of Friday's "brutally bad" unemployment report, and sketching the nasty economic outlook, he writes:

The November election will take place against that background of economic distress, which ought to be good news for candidates running on a platform of change.

But the opponents of change, those who want to keep the Bush legacy intact, are not without resources. In fact, they've already made their standard pivot when things turn bad--the pivot from hype to fear. And in case you haven't noticed, they're very, very good at the fear thing.

You see, for 30 years American politics has been dominated by a political movement practicing Robin-Hood-in-reverse, giving unto those that hath while taking from those who don't. And one secret of that long domination has been a remarkable flexibility in economic debate. The policies never change--but the arguments for these policies turn on a dime.

When the economy is doing reasonably well, the debate is dominated by hype--by the claim that America's prosperity is truly wondrous, and that conservative economic policies deserve all the credit.

But when things turn down, there is a seamless transition from "It's morning in America! Hurray for tax cuts!" to "The economy is slumping! Raising taxes would be a disaster!"

Thus, until just the other day Bush administration officials were in denial about the economy's problems. They were still insisting that the economy was strong, and touting the "Bush boom"--the improvement in the job situation that took place between the summer of 2003 and the end of 2006--as proof of the efficacy of tax cuts.

But now, without ever acknowledging that maybe things weren't that great after all, President Bush is warning that given the economy's problems, "the worst thing the Congress could do is raise taxes on the American people and on American businesses."

And even more dire warnings are coming from some of the Republican presidential candidates. For example, John McCain's campaign Web site cautions darkly that "Entrepreneurs should not be taxed into submission. John McCain will make the Bush income and investment tax cuts permanent, keeping income tax rates at their current level and fighting the Democrats' plans for a crippling tax increase in 2011."

What "crippling" tax increase, which would tax entrepreneurs into submission, is Mr. McCain talking about? The answer is, proposals by Democrats to let the Bush tax cuts for people making more than $250,000 a year expire, returning upper-income tax rates to the levels that prevailed in the Clinton years.

And we all remember how little entrepreneurship there was, how weakly the economy performed, during the Clinton years, right? Oh, wait. (I've put some charts comparing job performance during the Clinton and Bush years on my Times blog, It's pretty startling how comparatively weak the Bush era looks.)

Never mind. The whole point of scare tactics is that they can work even in the face of inconvenient facts.

And what I'm not sure about is whether the Democrats are ready for the fight they're about to face.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Barack Obama won his impressive victory in Iowa with a sunny, upbeat message of change.

But there's a powerful political faction in this country that understands very well that any real change will create losers as well as winners. In particular, any serious progressive reform of health care, let alone a broader attempt to reduce middle-class insecurity and inequality, will have to mean higher taxes on the affluent. And members of that faction will do whatever it takes to scare people into believing that change means disaster for the economy.

I don't think they'll succeed. But it would be a big mistake to assume that they won't.


Digby has been thinking about this too, and today's Krugman column seems to have served as a sort of final piece of the puzzle. The result is what she describes as "a long and very wonky post, but for those of you who are in the middle of election fatigue, it might be a nice diversion." Don't be fooled. This is prime Digby, which means that it doesn't get smarter or more elegant. I expect we'll be coming back to this piece. Treat yourself and read it now.

Here's where the piece winds up:
The CW is emerging on all fronts. The conservative political establishment is obviously very worried about a rejection of the status quo of earthquake proportions.

I do not believe that it is impossible to beat it back, but we have to be clear eyed about the forces that are being gathered to defeat this. They will not go quietly, and once a Democrat is in office, they will use all of their formidable powers to keep them constricted within a narrow range of acceptable policy options.

I'm not trying to rain on anyone's parade. I've long extolled the virtue and necessity of inspiration and participation in politics and real democratic mandate would be a powerful weapon. But real change isn't going to be simple and it isn't going to be easy, no matter how big a mandate for a strong progressive agenda the Democrats are able to achieve. This is a massive ship we're trying to turn and while it's necessary to have a talented captain at the helm, it takes more than that to counter momentum. We're just beginning to see the movement that's necessary to change course.

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At 10:46 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

For the Sirota piece, try this link:

At 10:47 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Whoops! Let's try the link again and get it all in:

But now you'll need to cut and paste.

At 10:48 PM, Blogger peg said...

i re-read the transcript of saturday's debate to find something i heard but to which no one else paid any attention. obama remarked on his bipartisanship as efforts to enlist republican and independent voters in his - no, make that our march toward change, not in any sense to accommodate the powers that be. this was exactly what i've been waiting to hear. without stating it too obviously (probably for fear of scaring off those very voters), he was implying that his interest is in reestablishing a serious democratic majority (remember?). maybe i'm just projecting, but i'jm beginning to think this guy is for real. and, the more i read of his history, i think that perhaps he is rather radical, too. what if his version of "change" is so serious that we're better off if he doesn't get too specific and scare folks off?

i'm beginning to let myself hope... for the first time since a june night in 1968.

At 11:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would like to hope you are right, and I found myself hearing echoes of 1968 in his Iowa speech, but I just don't see Barack's commitment to progressive values in anything he has previously accomplished. I also find his close association w/ Lieberman and his cretinous cronies troubling.

I still hope that Edwards can find someway to scale the media barricade and make this a true battle for the progressive mantle.
IMHO, he much more closely reflects the hopes (and policies) that RFK represented.

At 5:21 AM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Ah, very clever, going the HuffPost route, Leslie. Thanks!

And deeluzon and cbear, these are questions with which obviously a lot of us are grappling. I wish we weren't reduced to listening for buried messages.

For what it's worth, I believe that Obama means well. I don't think he could inspire as many people as he apparently has if he weren't. What I FEAR is that his candidacy has become useful to a lot of people who DON'T mean so well, at least in terms of progressive values. I don't doubt that he wants to reach out to Republicans and independents. I just wish there were some clearer indications that they won't always get what they want.

Maybe this is what I get for paying attention to goddamn liberals like Sirota and Krugman. I just wish their arguments didn't make such simple sense. I hate to be reduced to blind hope--we've been there before. It doesn't usually work out too well.

Thanks to all for the comments.


At 5:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Come keinny, I really do think you have paraniod delusions.

You must think that if you spout your anit-American lies and hatred long enough and loud enough that people will actually come to belive it. Your philosophy is a cancer on this society and I sure hope we can stop it's spread. Thank God that you are such a small minortiy in this country.

At 7:32 AM, Blogger peg said...

believe me, i appreciate the concerns... if there were a single pundit - hell, person - from whom i seek guidance, it's krugman. and i've been tending towards edwards for months. but i can't ignore the fact that, despite my best efforts to radicalize my 22 year old son since he was a toddler, it has been obama who has finally engaged his enthusiasm. and not in a completely starry-eyed way. in reply to my articulations of concern, he simply said "what's the worst that happens? he disappoints us? of course he will; they all will. but we've got to give him a chance."

the best defense against the demise of our democracy is an involved and passionate population; this guy, without a hint of demagoguery (spelling?!) is mustering an army of millions of kids to care. i can't help but be mightily impressed.

At 7:58 AM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Back again to Leslie:

I finally got around to incorporating your link to the Feb. 2007 Sirota piece on HuffPost. That is absolutely the piece we're looking for.

Thanks again!


At 8:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the thanks, but its really not necessary as, and I think I can speak for most of your regulars, it is a pleasure to have the additional discussion(s) w/ you and Howie.

As I've said, I'm a dedicated Edwards guy and think, despite the media's early coronation of Obama, that we still might see this turn into a horse race.
I sincerely hope that is the case, but in the event that we do end up w/ Barack, or even HRC, we can still make our voices heard by supporting our fighting Dem candidates to act as a counter balance to their less-than-progressive leanings and influences.

The good news is the goopers seem to be staging their own latter day version of the Donner Party Incident (h/t tanabark):

...and its fun as hell to watch.

At 3:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

wow, you got a Moore award from Andrew Sullivan. Screw that cock smoker, you are right on!

At 5:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

CNN had a poll a few weeks ago matching all the major party candidates in each party against each other. Obama and Hillary struggle against every one of the Republicans in this poll, even Huckabee. I believe they defeat Huckabee by a pathetic two points, well within the poll's margin of error while losing big to McCain (Dailykos had a separate poll yesterday of Ohio where Obama loses there to McCain while Hillary actually beats McCain. Tell me there's no racism in this country). Edwards on the other hand, wallops the Republicans, beating Mittens and Huckabee by nearly 30 points (!!) and McCain by 15!!!! That's all I need to know...I'm for Edwards!

Mark my words...other Dems will also look around in a couple of weeks and realize they're about to give the nomination to a wonderful, inspiring, honest, beautiful human being who's middle name is Hussein and whose skin color is Black. They'll realize what the Republicans will do to him, especially in the South (I smell a "Can we trust Obama in the White House?" ad with a video link to the movie The Manchurian Candidate). Then they'll take a second look at Hillary at which point they'll run in horror in Edward's direction.

At 5:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh sorry...I forgot to say hello to the Dumb Fuck.

At 6:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

but james, the question is, which manchurian candidate? laurence harvey or liev schreiber?

At 6:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh definitely Harvey. The remake was atrocious. Maybe I'm biased 'cause I grew up watching old movies with my dad on AMC but remakes never seem to turn out well.

By the way, the real Manchurian Candidate is McCain. I mean tortured in a Communist prison camp for years then suddenly released? How convenient. I hope people wake the fuck up...Armageddon isn't just a movie title folks!

At 6:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Continuing the movie theme here, and from a previous thread, I started thinking about what a film depiction of the Donner Party incident might look like... starring the pathetic pygmies.

here's what I came up with:

I imagine McCain as the ill-fated George Donner convincing the repug sheep, I mean settlers, to "surge" forward through the mountains despite the warnings of the expert frontiersmen.
"Goddamit, just listen to me you cowardly bastards, I don't give a shit-in-hell how many others have died in those mountains, I know exactly what the fuck I'm doing and I'll go through the gates of Hades to get there. Saddle up!".

Fast Freddie would be the grizzled old cowpoke smoking his corncob pipe and squinting up at McCain:
"Ah'm tired of all this speechifying boys. I knowed this 'ere McCain feller for a coon's age an if'n he sez it will work, ah'm afore it.
That boy is tougher than rawhide leather an twice as ornery. Lets git to movin".

Mitt, of course, would be the well-to-do land baron who (after the party is trapped and people are dead and dying from the cold and starvation) would be the first one to lose his shit and actually suggest eating the dead:
"C'mon, its not like they're really part of our group...don't you remember, they didn't join up with the wagon train till after we left the fort...and they're lazy and shiftless.. and I supported wagon train master McCain's idea to kill the weak ones so I, I, I... I mean WE, could go on living and save our families...Listen, don't blame me, I've got five boys to take care of."
Later, he would be the one to sneak out as the others (including his family) sleep...and be discovered behind the snowbank gnawing on some poor dead bastard's femur:
" A human leg? No sirree, I ain't eating no human leg...this here is a tree branch...and besides, it was Freddie that said I should try and work this meat a little so it'd be tender enough for everybody to eat."

Huckabee as the genial preacher/snake-oil salesman:
"These fine folks have been LIFTED UP to their just rewards in GAWD'S heaven, and ah'm only glad I was here to witness their salvation and hep 'em along to the PROMISED LAND!
Now, lets eat-- Mitt, hand me that there legbone...and ah got some mighty fine tastin' marinade sauce here ah'll sell you for only $5. It works great on the meat, and later you can sprinkle some of it on your boy's'll probably grow back that leg and might even raise him up from the dead."

Guiliani would be the weasely, shift-eyed gold miner who survives the incident by conning the others into going out through the wilderness in search of rescue...while he stays behind, and (in-between furtively seducing the grieving widows) chows down on their sick and dying family members.
He would also be the first guy out to greet the rescuers:
"Mighty glad to see you boys. Let me tell you, it was a terrible, terrible time here with all the dead and the dying and the blood and the gore and the goddamn cowardly cannibals....I'm just glad I was here to save as many as I could from those flesh-eating bastards.
What? Naw, that ain't blood on my vest, its marinade sauce.
Say there podner, you wouldn't be interested in some gold teeth would you? Bought 'em off an Indian 'fore all this happened."


Obviously, I have both an overly-active imagination, and waaaay too much time on my hands.

At 7:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ouch, is Edwards tucking his tail and running home yet? I wonder who he will throw his support to>

Looks like that Obama Train might get derailed!

I just love it! We want Hillary; even Ron Paul beats Hillary.

Man oh man, I'm buying stock in Gillette!

At 5:44 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fuck off Dumb Fuck.

Now I have a terrible urge to read about the Donner Party...and cbear, you forgot to throw in Hillary. She really should be in the Donner Party, er, running in the Republican Primary.

At 6:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had to go back downstairs and school the Mormon kid again. You may want to address a certain racial issue he seems to be struggling with.

Thanks for giving Al his morning bitch slap, I was busy with dave-the-dumb-fuck.

Al, you dumb fuck.

At 6:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Aw fer chrissakes, I just caught Al annoying people downstairs in the McGovern impeachment thread.
I gave him a slap, but I'm sure he's just going to go hide somewhere else. Its like playing whack-a-mole with this dumb fuck.,
C'mon, stop bothering the nice people.
Can't you go play Battleship or something with your gooper friends?
How 'bout a nice game of jerky cookie? You know they always let you eat the cookie even if you don't win.
Dumb fuck.

At 11:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Got here from TMW... and I'm still pissed and frustrated. Look folks, Edwards is great - but he AIN'T gonna get the nod, and anyone who thinks otherwise is smoking the bad stuff. Because of money and campaign infrastructure, it's either "the bitch" or the black man. Don't get me wrong - Hillary IS a talented politician. But NOT talented enough to get that 30% of the people who hate her guts to even piss on her to put her out, if she was on fire. And in order to get things done AFTER the election, that don't involve getting Revolutionary and killing off the Republicans who might have stolen the election, we have to have a candidate who will win - period.

The problem some folks see with Obama is that he's being realistic, at times. No, the drug companies, and the corporate pigs won't go away without a fight. That doesn't mean they can't be re-directed. But he can't directly SAY that he's going to redirect them, because if he did, they'd know, and then they'd become even more entrenched than they already are.

HRC is not a candiate who will get things done - and she's NOT her husband. The exit polls from N.H. show she had the support of those Democrats who also want the party wars to continue - instead of those who want to get things done. Independents voted for Obama, in significant #'s over Hillary. So did the young. And of those who voted for Hillary, an overwhelming majority said if they could have voted for Bill Clinton again, they would have. And THAT'S why they voted for Hillary.
- Not because she's the candidate they want, but because she's married to the guy who brought us the last serious positive roll of the dice. And that's not enough.

Obama SHOULd win the nod - and IMHO, pick up Edwards as his running mate. Edwards will pull in the hard-core liberals, while Obama continues to nail down the independents, forcing the Reich-wing nominated patsy to continue to pander to only the reich-wing - and giving that doofus no room for moving towards the center.

Not only is Obama the best choice we have, he's the only sane choice left. And as the 22 yr-old said, "What do we have left to lose?"

At 6:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Folks lets all just ake a deap breath and think about this thing for a minute.
Senators Clinton, and Obama are both quite skilled but there is one unique difference between the two. Here's an example.
A few short years ago both Senators Clinton, and Obama had an issue come before them. Both Senators had the exact same information, under the exact same conditions, to make their decision. The wierd thing is they're decisions were as different as Day, and Night, and the decision would affect us all in a very profound way.
Senator Clinton decided to take us to War in Iraq. With all the experience Clinton has it's still just a lot of experience making "Bad Decisions."
Senator Obama on the hand based his decision on fact and demanded more information on the subject. As a result he voted not to take this country to war in Iraq.
Given the choice, who would you choose. A canidate with a lot experience making "Bad Decisions", or a canidate with less experience that makes their decisions based on "Sound Judgment" and "Fact".
I would think the choice is quite clear. Whatever your choice, base your decision on tangible facts, not Political Spin.
For wht it's worth I have a lot to loose by choosing the wrong canidate. My Son is in Baghdad.


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