Friday, August 1, 2008

Roost, Roost, Roost for the Home Team

On a tactical level, I agree with Big Tent Democrat’s point. But I think the problem he’s getting at with Obama’s candidacy is not just (or most importantly) about race. And it’s not just tactical; it goes to the question of character.

First, it’s not just about race: Obama and his campaign have consistently behaved in ways that are dangerous or destructive for the general election and for the long term (i.e., for actually governing and achieving progressive change). They did so in order to win the primaries and secure the nomination. Although Hillary Clinton’s campaign was accused of taking the “low road” and being unconscionably brutal, it wasn’t a patch on these guys in the scorched-earth department.

They gave away healthcare from the get-go (undercutting mandates, validating Harry-and-Louise frames).

They gave away major economic analyses and principles from the get-go (validating the idea that Social Security is in crisis, and not bothering to develop any substantive ideas on other economic issues).

They gave away the defense of voting rights (blocking re-votes in Florida and Michigan, thus putting the Democratic Party on a level – and pock-marked – playing field with the GOP on the topic of disenfranchisement).

More generally, their behavior re Florida and Michigan gave away a lot of the legitimacy of the Democratic Party – weakening it in its appearance of fairness, competence and openness. They consistently acted not with the long-term interests and appeal of the Party in mind, but aiming to subsume it into their own cult-of-personality. The shift of the DNC to Chicago… the demonizing of (and attempt to clamp down on) any dissent… the remarkable efforts to redirect fundraising away from independent progressive organizations and toward the Obama campaign – all are extensions of this same pattern, a pattern that is very dangerous for the Party. This is what a cancer does to a host organism. It feeds itself and grows, until the organism dies.

Of course, they gave away the Party’s advantage on women’s issues (read any other post on my blog or most of the sites in my blogroll – ‘nuff said).

Now, they have given away the Constitution (FISA, death penalty).

Obama, in other words, did not just make one tactical and/or moral boo-boo in playing the race card on Bill and Hillary. His campaign has exhibited a consistent – indeed, pervasive – pattern of unprincipled, compass-less action that has left it with nothing except the Precious’s aura and his one anti-Iraq speech on which to run. Not the economy. Not women’s issues. Not the rule of law. Not healthcare.

And perhaps most importantly – and this gets to my second point – not character. These cards he’s tossed away are not just winning plays, they are (as Hillary was wont to say) foundational principles of the Democratic Party. And in aggregate they are the tentpole that would have kept Obama's personal brand/image/identity erect.

Obama’s “answer” to the critique that he’s all airy rhetoric, “just words,” has been to show that he’s cynical and hard-boiled. He has given away cards left and right (pun intended) in order not to be seen as familiar, traditional. But the net effect has been that he has emerged as a mysterious fog, defined by two antipodes – “hope” and realpolitik – but with no visible, comprehensible person to unite them.

In fact, of all the self-centered, short-term, Party-destructive, self-muddying things Obama has done, playing the race card may be the least problematic tactically and the least immoral. Yes, it was unfair to Bill and Hillary. And yes, since it would have been fair vis a vis the Republicans, it would be maddening if it can’t now be used effectively against them. But if there’s a card that the first credible African-American candidate for President ought to be able to play, this is it. Four hundred years of oppression have earned that, at least. Was he clumsy, amateurish and unfair in how he wielded it during the primaries? Yes – but he drew it legitimately.

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