Thursday, October 9, 2008

Talkless Heads

Isn’t it remarkable, at this late date… after more than a year of candidacy, and four years in the public eye… after a primary that attracted more attention than any in our lifetime… after the eruption of issues of unprecedented urgency, scale and consequence, which are assaulting us every day – or hour… isn’t it remarkable that there continues to be no substantive case for Barack Obama’s prospective presidency?

Isn’t it remarkable that Obama’s supporters, after all this time, cannot come up with a serious argument for why he should be president, other than (a) the other guy’s awful and scary and (b) we have to throw the Republicans out (or, at best, he’ll hire better advisors)?

Isn’t it remarkable that they cannot make an even slightly persuasive case for what we can expect him actually to do as president?

Of course, when one says things like this, there is a consistent response from these people: “Do de do de do… I can’t hear you… I’ve got my fingers in my ears… La di dah di dah.” I expect their reaction to this post will be the same. “Good lord, there he goes again, beating this dead horse. This guy is a broken record, one of these dead-end obsessives.”

This reaction takes a few different forms, but they all amount to a refusal to discuss. Not that they won’t talk about those issues – many will… from the economy to nuclear proliferation to whatever. As long as we’re not talking politics. As soon as the conversation moves to the election and the Precious… inquiry and open dialogue stops. The only allowable form of discourse – and the only permissible emotional affect – is outrage at the Republicans, especially Sarah Palin.

One variant: “Oh, you just hate him.” Meaning: “You’re not rational on this subject, so we can’t talk about it.” For some, this has the subtext of: “You’re a racist!” For others, simple perplexity at how anyone can find him un-wonderful.

Another variant: “Oh, you’re just bitter that Hillary lost. You were in love with her. Get over it – after all, she did.” Meaning: “You’re not ready to come out of your room… so we can’t talk.”

And another: “Sarah Palin??? John McCain??? What is there to talk about?”

What you absolutely never hear, though is: “I am enthusiastic about the prospect of an Obama presidency because he will do X, Y or Z on the economy…” or “His healthcare proposal is based on the smartest analysis I’ve heard about how to tackle this problem – let me tell you why…” or “His ideas for how to approach a complex, globalizing economy and geopolitical arena are unique, in A, B and C ways…” or anything even remotely like that.

Press them for a single respect in which he has shown actual substantive and innovative thinking and leadership… or for a coherent policy frame that makes sense of his FISA vote, his D.C. gun control statement, his position on the death penalty, his Harry and Louse ads and on and on… and they resort to one of the responses above. It’s all horserace, all GOP-directed schadenfreude, all Palin snark, all ohmygod apocalysm about a possible McCain win, all the time.

Don’t get me wrong. Obama is going to win. The American people are going to throw these Repubums out. We are going to recreate the political conditions of 1932… whether or not we have an FDR to fill that role.

But wouldn’t you think that, given the foregone conclusion we face... and given the pressing urgency of making the right decisions about economic policy -- with material consequences for all our lives, including those of these interlocutors – wouldn’t you think that other conversations would be happening? Is it just too scary these days to think? Are we down to nothing but repeating “hope” and “change”?

Just askin’.


Unknown said...

It has always been just "hope" and "change." At this point, the "hope" is that he's a stealth liberal, concealing his true nature so he can be elected, and "change" means "If he isn't, then we'll hold his feet to the fire."

iolasov said...

How about:

(1) He will end the war in Iraq.

(2) He will get many people healthcare, and make healthcare more affordable for those who already have it.

(3) He will raise the standing of the United States in the world, both because of his current popularity abroad, and because of his stated interest in finding diplomatic solutions to our foreign policy problems.

(4) He will devote much-needed attention to the war in Afghanistan.

(5) He will not start any new wars pre-emptively, and it certainly seems that he will avoid a war with Iran or North Korea, even if given the opportunity to start one.

You might debate any or all of these, but I think they certainly provide a strong prima facie case for his candidacy. And, if the concern was whether there was any case for his candidacy over Clinton's (and here, I think it would be reasonable to say we're beating a dead horse), we might add:

(6) Reasonably or not, he is generally less polarizing than Hillary, and for that reason would be able to initiate legislation without it being unseemly for Republicans with anti-Hillary constituents to vote for it.

Of course, we might worry that (1)-(6) aren't the arguments that most Obama supporters would make for his candidacy. But the issue isn't whether most Obama supporters can make a good positive argument for his candidacy. As far as I can tell, most people can't make a good argument for any political position. I imagine you'd agree with me on that count.

Falstaff said...

I agree with your #3. As I've said elsewhere, I think he will be immensely popular overseas -- initially, at least. His power as a symbol is real and moving.

And I also agree that he'll intend to change our posture on international relations and the so-called war on terror (your #s 1, 4 and 5).

Having said that, I think:

a) The road to hell is paved with good but vague intentions. Recognizing that what we've been doing is wrong isn't the same as actually having a coherent world view that helps you figure out with what to replace it. I have yet to hear that world view from him or any of his advocates. What does he think is actually shaping world events, the course of history, the global economy, the rise of fundamentalism, and on and on? And apart from pulling out of Iraq and moving harder into Afghanistan, what path forward does he propose?

b) On healthcare, maybe he'll do something substantive, and maybe he won't. The evidence thus far is decidedly unconvincing. He essentially ran the Karl Rove attack on genuinely universal healthcare during the primaries -- up to and including echoing the "Harry and Louise" ads. And Jim Cooper, who was a leading figure in attacking Hillary's first attempt at universal healthcare in 1993, was one of his close advisers on the topic. His rationale for attacking mandates seems like a cynical political ploy to me. And as a practical matter, if you don't go in with strong demands and a clear vision of what needs to be changed and created, the inertia of the current system and its entrenched interests will prevent anything from changing. And that leads to...

c) The core of my argument in this post, which is that there is no coherent conceptual framework or policy structure in what he has said -- which is why his followers can't have that conversation. Not only has he consistently avoided developing that, in favor of vague, aspirational exhortations, but he has actually taken a whole slew of positions -- and actual votes -- that at best could be described as incoherent, and at worst deeply cynical. FISA? The death penalty? Gun control in DC? Put aside whether you think those are correct or honorable positions, but what's the thought or world view that underlies them?

In other words, my point in this post is that the *policy* rationale for his candidacy has never been articulated -- or, I believe, even imagined. And when one tries to have that conversation with Obama supporters -- including close friends, people I love and respect -- they tend to find one way or another not to talk about it (in the ways I suggest in the post). I'm certainly -- and obviously -- not saying people should therefore vote for McCain. I'm just saying that it's scary to be putting this (in my view) compass-less cypher into a position of such crucial decision-making, in the midst of a genuinely urgent global crisis of historic proportions, when real leadership is desperately needed. And I'm also saying that discussing that is a legitimate thing for thoughtful people to do... but something many thoughtful people won't do.

Finally, re your #6 -- we are, imo, way way beyond issues of "polarization." That post-partisan nonsense was never a serious argument, to me, but the current crisis renders it entirely moot. It was a luxury of more frivolous times. What we need now is the right analysis, and strong leadership. Hillary provided both. Plus, it has been apparent for some time, even before this meltdown, that the public had moved strongly toward the Democrats. The people don't want post-partisanship, on balance. They want Democrats. They want to throw the bums out -- and they will, in massive numbers. The next president won't have to worry about alienating the GOP. He will have to worry about getting the decisions right.

Derek said...

Oh, good grief. The metastician objects to the candidate because -- surprise! -- the candidate doesn't think meta-analysis will win the election.

Quibble, fine, but I'm voting for Obama because of his approach to economic issues:

I'm voting for him because
of his approach to education issues:

I'm voting for him because of his approach to heatlhcare:

I'm voting for him because of his priorities in foreign affairs:

Etc., etc. And, yes, I'm voting for him because McCain is so decidedly wrong on so many issues, he only has the inept Republican bench to draw upon to run the government, and his solutions to challenges are mostly retreads of last century's solutions, as if we could just keep recycling the same ideas for new circumstances.

But beyond the issues, Obama hasn't put forth a philosophical unifying field theory of governance and policy because, as he's said at several times in several different ways, it's adherence to ideology over practicality that's led to Washington's own blame-and-credit freeze. And you're wrong: people don't want Democrats so much as they want an effective government, whoever it is. The Democrats just look less like screw-ups these days next to the Republicans. But it's not just blind rage that gives Congress as nearly dismal the favorability ratings as the Bush Administration is getting.

Obama's primary philosophies aren't hope and change; that's what voters want emotionally, and a smart campaign tapped into that sense to rise above a set of bluebook proposals. His use of those themes is no more cynical than standing in front of a flag to give a speech. But whatever the voter mood, Obama's approach has clearly been about competence and pragmatism. That's admittedly less sexy to campaign on, but certainly defines both the approach he's taken with his campaign (primary and now general) and his votes. I didn't agree myself with his FISA vote or his views on the second amendment -- but I also don't think either of those are worth fighting over, so I'm fine if the consensus is sometimes "let's move on if there's no clear strategy to win on this one." And always being a "fighter" is exactly why people are tired of Bush and the Republicans (particularly in light of their incompetence). The Republicans became the party that governed merely for the purpose of winning elections, so everything became a litmus test on ideological purity. And their increasing hypocrisy only compounded the distaste voters had for their ideological fervor.

Obama isn't proposing himself as president because he's the ideological opposite of the Republicans on everything. If he represents "the opposite" of the Republicans in any way -- beyond the most visible evidence of his skin color, of course -- he's saying that we should be more strategic internationally -- i.e., more ideologically focused -- and bring the realpolitik inside the borders to get things accomplished in the country.

So enter post-partisanship. Hyper partisanship -- known less pejoratively as "the right analysis and strong leadership" -- is pretty clearly bankrupt as an approach to government. Unfairly so, perhaps, because it's mostly the result of the last 8 years, but people want a government that actually works and isn't merely a trade of one ideology for another.

In other words, in a lot of voters' opinions, the last thing America needs right now is a vision.

And, yes, you're a broken record -- c'mon, even Philip Glass plays more than one note occasionally. Hillary would have probably made a fine president -- although the chaos, poor planning and infighting of her own campaign didn't give me a lot of reassurance of that. But she's made a fine senator. I've voted for her twice to the Senate and I've sent her money to help pay off her campaign debts. I'd love to see her on the Supreme Court or, barring that, as Senate majority leader. Or, if this doesn't turn out as I hope in November, I'd hope she'd run and win in 2012. But she didn't win the 2008 primary and so the PRAGMATIC thing to do would be to consider the two options we have and decide who would be the better president.

Finally -- many of your criticisms of Obama were leveled, by Democrats, against Bill Clinton during his first primary campaign and into his first term: triangulation, Sister Souljah, welfare reform, etc. And without the benefit of hindsight we enjoy now, many of his positions at the time "at best could be described as incoherent, and at worst deeply cynical" -- at least by those who wanted a more ideologically pure Democrat in the White House.

Falstaff said...

Derek -- You make a case for him that is interesting, here: "he's saying that we should be more strategic internationally -- i.e., more ideologically focused -- and bring the realpolitik inside the borders to get things accomplished in the country." I don't think it's real, but it's interesting. I do think that, like pretty much everybody, you're projecting your own nicely designed garments onto the Emperor-in-waiting.

Overall, we'll just have to agree to disagree, as the man said. If Obama is the candidate of pragmatism over ideology, I'd really welcome a couple of pragmatic proposals from him. Like, say, in the current crisis? Just compare what he's said to what Hillary has proposed. Vague vs. concrete (and, well, pragmatic). Similarly on healthcare. It's not, imo, pragmatic to walk into a struggle -- and it will be a struggle (the lack of universal healthcare in America is not the result of partisan bickering; it's the result of a deeper conflict of interests) -- by conceding some of the fundamental positions from the get-go. Absence of ideology does not equal pragmatism.

I could argue other thises and thats (e.g., re the public mood; the polls really do indicate that people want Democrats). But mostly I'd say you're not really speaking to the point of this post -- or even my comment above. I'm addressing the absence of a visible point of view from Obama, after all this time, and the insistence of his advocates that that's a feature, not a bug. A point of view isn't the same thing as ideological rigidity. People with, in fact, ideological rigidity criticized Bill Clinton for his "shift to the center" -- but I didn't object to that at all. Clinton DID have a point of view. He saw the liberating potential of technology and business, and freed the Democratic Party from its Marxist, labor vs. capital prison. (btw, that's also been one of my motifs... I'm not entirely one-note... :)).

And, finally, the guy who coined the phrase about not needing a vision also said, as is often forgotten, "right now." I don't think one could credibly compare Barack Obama to him in terms of actually having a clear, decisive point of view on how to handle troubled institutions.

Falstaff said...

Or, to put my point another way: Let's stipulate that Barack Obama has already been elected. He will be, so let's just jump ahead three weeks. He's president. We can -- and should -- feel wonderful to have lived to see an African-American elected President of the United States.

Okay, now it's the day after he's been inaugrated. Is it okay NOW to question his grasp of the problems, his idea about what to do about them, his strength of leadership? Is it okay now to discuss what we actually should be doing about the economy, healthcare, geopolitics... and if he continues to exhibit the same vagueness and lack of leadership, to express dismay?

In other words, is the ONLY legitimate topic of discussion who's gonna win?

Derek said...

That, I think, is a very legitimate question -- at that point. And, yes, the day after inauguration is a fine time to ask it. Or, even, after the election, before inauguration. Hell, it's fine to ask it now, but no one is going to care when we have a choice between two people, and not a third possibility. The question between now and the election (every election) is "who's going to win," not "what is their world view." Maybe it ought to be, but nobody wins with that anymore.

Hillary's approach to issues is to get down in the details, and that obviously gives people confidence in her -- not that she can get it done, but at least she would know what to do. On the other hand, a lot of people feel that kind of approach is better suited to a Cabinet secretary than to a president.

So it's definitely a difference in styles in evidence between the two. And I can see political and governmental (to distinguish between those two) advantages and disadvantages to each approach. But as far as projecting onto Obama my own designs, that could well be. That also happens to have been a complaint against Hillary's supporters that many of Obama's supporters held during the primaries, particularly when she was seen as inevitable, better financed, and more widely supported among the officialdom of the party, even if that support later turned out to be about an inch deep.

For example, I have found her own positions on gay marriage, flag burning, the embargo against Cuba, the Iraq War vote, the death penalty, etc., incoherent against what she has said stood for in more general terms; in other words, I don't see a wholly consistent approach here either. (And, yes, on several of these she and Obama have the same position.) On the other hand, once she has stated a position, she rarely modifies it or changes it, even if it conflicts with her broader rhetoric, and he's shown far more willingness to do so. That's both bad for just the reasons you object to most -- then what does he stand for -- and, in light of the intransigence of the Bush administration, probably refreshing to many voters.

Since my own thinking on individual issues has changed over time, and I'm more comfortable with ambivalence on some issues where I used to be doctrinaire and more rigid on others where I used to be ambivalent, I'm probably more comfortable with his approach, even if I end up disagreeing with him on a particular issue.

But I can certainly appreciate that such a lack of predictability would make a lot of people nervous -- possibly to his political advantage, possibly not. I suspect he'll get the "Slick Barry" sobriquet pretty early on.

I think the time between election day and inauguration day will be very interesting -- and possibly very telling. At the moment, however, most voters, the media, and the candidates are focused on the actual choices at the ballot box -- since that's the most immediate issue we can do something about -- and not the Queen's Speech policy outlines that will necessarily follow.

Falstaff said...

You make a good point -- a couple, in fact. I've been frustrated by what has felt like a resistance to engage in actual discussion on the part of several Obama supporters... but that clearly doesn't apply to political discourse as a whole. As you say, when there's a choice before us, that's what's gonna dominate people's heads.

And yes, I expect that the period between the election and the inauguration will be more intense, interesting -- and quite possibly volatile, in terms of attitudes and perceptions -- than any comparable interregnum in our lifetime.

Ningen said...

iolasov said

"He will devote much-needed attention to the war in Afghanistan."

To what end? After 7 years, why are we there? And why are we now destabilizing Pakistan?

Peter H said...

Isn’t it remarkable that Obama’s supporters, after all this time, cannot come up with a serious argument for why he should be president, other than (a) the other guy’s awful and scary and (b) we have to throw the Republicans out (or, at best, he’ll hire better advisors)? Isn’t it remarkable that they cannot make an even slightly persuasive case for what we can expect him actually to do as president?

This is demonstrably false, as Iolasov & Derek's comments show. Actually, I'd argue when you'd be hard-pressed to find a Democratic candidate in recent memory who has inspired more enthusiasm among his supporters than Obama.

It is true that when dealing with Obama skeptics on the left, Obama supporters tend to fall back on the consequences of a McCain presidency. Maybe this is because Obama lacks any substance, but I think the more obvious explanation is that the traits that Obama's supporters find in him - charismatic, inspirational, cool, calm, collected - seem very different to the Obama skeptics - phony, vapid, glib, aloof, etc. It's not that I can't make a positive case for Obama, it's that I know it's not going to work with people who have a very different gut-level reaction to Obama than I do.

Falstaff said...

Peter -- Again, we agree to disagree. I quite obviously wasn't arguing with the proposition that many are enthusiastic about Obama. What does that have to do with anything? I was arguing that the *policy* case for his candidacy -- what he will actually do -- hasn't been made with concreteness or specificity... despite the crying need for same because of the present crisis. I continue to feel this, Derek's and iolasov's articulate posts notwithstanding. Pointing to, on balance, vague or muddled or unspecific declarations of purpose on X, Y or Z issue on his campaign website simply isn't a response to this criticism.

In the end, I must say, I think you exhibit the tendency I described in the post itself: a refusal to discuss issues. (I'd add a new variant to that, if I were posting this today: "It's moot. He's gonna win, so what's the point of arguing all this?") Your own reason is basically the first one I gave in the post: "I could give you lots of specific policy arguments, but you just hate him, so there's no point in talking. You won't even listen."

Peter H said...

Actually, I've made the pont before in other forums that the policy differences between Senators Clinton & Obama were extremely minor. The disagreement over an individual mandate in health care, while not unimportant, hardly qualifies as a fundamental difference (Jacob Hacker, an expert on U.S social policy, had an excellent discussion of this:

While I disagreed with Obama's attacks on Clinton's individual mandates, the fact remains that Obama is still pursuing a more ambitious plan on health care than any Democratic candidate since Bill Clinton in his first term. So, if you are going to vote on the issues, I don't understand how you could support Senator Clinton in the primaries but refuse to support Obama in the general election.

That being said, I think most Obama skeptics are reluctant to vote for Obama not because of his policy stances but because (1) they don't like him personally &((2) they are angry about the way he conducted his primary campaign. Since it's very difficult to change the former, and since Obama supporters & skpetics are never going to agree about the latter, supporters tend to fall back onto focusing on the consequences of a McCain presidency.

I don't agree that Obama is vague on his proposals or his agenda. In terms of the financial crisis, people can look at his proposals for reforms and decide for themselves:

Peter H said...

One more thing, in response to your comment:

Press them..for for a coherent policy frame that makes sense of his FISA vote, his D.C. gun control statement, his position on the death penalty, his Harry and Louse ads and on and on

The simple answer is that Obama moved to the center once the primary ended to appeal to moderate & independent voters. While this is hardly edifying, it hardly makes the Obama the first Democrat to flip-flop & pander on certain hot-button issues to appeal to the general electorate. What you do make of Bill Clinton going back to Arkansas to execute the mentally challenged Ricky Ray Rector during the 1992 campaign, or signing the Defense of Marriage Act, or flip-flopping on issues during his presidency like a balanced budget or missile defense?