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April 12, 2007

Commitment vs. Comprehension

Noam Scheiber's critique of the problems Obama's unifying, reformist message poses for his campaign is very smart. Scheiber writes:

The problem with Obama's reformist message is that it prevents him from singling out Bush and the GOP in a way that's very satisfying. In his speech to the fire fighters, for example, Obama only assigned blame elliptically. "It's a noble calling, what you do. ... But sometimes Washington forgets," he said. "Instead of making your job easier ... they try to cut funding so you couldn't buy masks and the suits that you needed." Later, he concluded: "What keeps Washington from doing all that it needs to do to better protect our fire fighters ... [is] the smallness of our politics."

But it's not Washington that has tried to cut funding for first-responders and won't give them the equipment they need. It's Bush's GOP. It's not the smallness of our politics that's holding these things up. It's the smallness of their politics. Pretty much every Democrat in Congress, given the chance to fix these indignities, would do it in an instant.

That's quite true, and quite smart. But I think the problems with Obama the message stem from problems with Obama the candidate. A week or so ago, a reader suggested I watch this Townhall with Obama. And I found it striking. The first question comes from the town's mayor, an older woman who's not yet eligible for Medicare, but can't afford her insurance, which has more than doubled its premiums since 2000. She'd love to get all those tests the doctors are recommending, she says, but she just can't afford them.

Obama stands up, looks at her, and says, "Well, your situation is obviously not unique." And he's right, it's not. But that wasn't the wisest response. From there, Obama takes what should be a morally impassioning issue and delivers a cool, calm, smart, and bloodless disquisition on various problems within the health care system. He's too removed. There's no sense that this grabs him in his gut, or that he'd stay up nights thinking about her plight. He answers the question, in fact, much like I'd blog the question. Facts and figures, calm analysis. That's good for a blog. Not so much for a candidate. And that's because a blog and a candidate reach different audiences looking for different things.

It's been said by others that Democratic primaries usually feature "a struggle between a candidate who draws support primarily from upscale, economically comfortable voters liberal on social and foreign policy issues, and a rival who relies mostly on downscale, financially strained voters drawn to populist economics and somewhat more conservative views on cultural and national security issues." But what that obscures is that Democratic primaries also feature a contest between two types of voters.

The first are high-information partisans, of the type who supported Dean, Hart, or now, Obama. By definition this group is more involved, more engaged, more educated, more politically aware. They like a candidate whose message is about "us," because they want to be involved. And that's what Obama's reformism is: It's about "us." That "we" can iron the absurdities and indignities and idiocies out of our political life, and create something shinier, better, newer, smarter. They understand what's wrong, and want a candidate who shares that understanding.

By contrast, primaries also feature low-information Democratic voters, most of them economically downscale, somewhat older, somewhat less engaged on a daily level. They don't want to be involved for the next four years. They want someone they can trust to fight for them. Hillary's prominent flaunting of her years in the Democratic trenches comforts these voters, as does Edwards visceral populism, as did Bill Clinton's preternatural empathy. And this is what Obama lacks. Until he can project some sense that he's "with" these people on a gut level, he won't win them over. Because they're not looking for comprehension of the cause, but commitment to it. And that's what Obama's unifying reformism doesn't display.

The problem for Obama is is that I'm not sure this can be generated. Clinton's warrior persona is deeply felt; she's spent decades engaged in a vicious battle against the right, and her enduring presence on the national stage is proof positive of her commitment. John Edwards grew up in the white working class and spent decades as a trial lawyer battling large corporations; his populism is effortless and obvious. But Obama has not fought the same fights. His ascension into public life has been mostly positive, his toughest races against Democrats rather than Republicans, his treatment from the right largely -- or at least atypically -- positive. He feels the possibility of unity, of bringing people together, because his experience has taught him that that's possible. His reformism is deeply held. But it may not be what Democratic primary voters want.

April 12, 2007 in Election 2008 | Permalink

Comments

But it may not be what Democratic primary voters want

Or, for that matter, what they need.

The phrase "I feel your pain" has turned into a national punchline, but we have to remember that at the time Clinton uttered it in 1992, in was in a response to a question during the presidential debates where the candidates were asked how they were personally affected by the recession. Bush/41 admitted he didn't really understand how to answer the question, whereas Clinton talked about seeing friends in his office tell him about having to close their families and meeting people who were losing their jobs and that it was hard for him to watch this happening to his friends in his community. He "felt the pain" they were going through and wanted to do something about it.

I also think Obama lacks the motivation to begin the process of retributions against the Republicans that are going to be necessary over the next 8 years. He got to where he is by acknowledging the concerns of conservatives, listening to their issues (he was head of the Harvard Law review, as I remember-- you need a lot of conservative votes to get a majority there!). Community organizing requires a lot of consensus building to get anything done in a city-- the interest groups (and I don't mean that as a pejorative) are too entrenched. That's not what's needed right now. We need a little less "understanding" of the other side of the aisle and a little more condemning. I might not agree with Clinton on a lot of the issues, but rest assured she's going to start firing a lot of people in Washington who've done a lot of damage and make sure they never have a chance to work in government again. I don't want Obama coming into office, speaking with a bunch of lawyers from Regent University, and saying,
"let's see how we can overcome the smallness of our politics to get stuff done together." I want them fired.

Posted by: Tyro | Apr 12, 2007 11:09:14 AM

This is the kind of question that Edwards would hit out of the park with a combination of empathy and policy prescriptions. I think Hillary would do pretty well with it too, because she always does her homework.

I am torn between Obama and Edwards. I recently had the chance to see alll of the Democratic candidates speak to a large union conference. Edwards was very good and quite dynamic, although he has a tendency toward the mawkish from time to time. The empathy and the trial lawyer background can sometimes make him a little too cute with the anecdotes. I hope he watches this, because it won't wear well.

Hillary gave the meatiest presentation and showed a mastery of the issues that the group was most interested in. She is not as compelling a presence as Edwards, but her intelligence and depth come across. She gives you the impression that she would be a tireless worker for whatever cause you care about.

I was a little disappointed in Obama. He has a great presence and an extraordinarily good voice. I know that sounds superficial, but his voice is really a major asset. It just reeks of thoughtfulness, and really helps him overcome his youth and inexperience.

But on the day I saw him, he got squeezed for time, because Biden bloviated for so long before him. It seemed to throw him off his stride and diminish his energy. His speech had neither Edwards' passion nor Hillary's substance. It led me to think he needs some better staff work. Of course going last in a group of seven is not ideal -- much of the energy in the room was probably drained by then too.

Ultimately, he's got to get over the idea that he can't be partisan. The Democratic electorate is hungry for a fighter. He will not get the nomination if the party faithful don't feel like he can throw an elbow when the need arises.

Posted by: Klein's Tiny Left Nut | Apr 12, 2007 11:24:14 AM

he was head of the Harvard Law review, as I remember-- you need a lot of conservative votes to get a majority there!

According to an article about Obama that was going around a little while ago (I can't remember where from), Obama did indeed get the position because the conservatives decided to back him. They thought he would at least give them "a fair shake" or something like that.

Which is worrying. I'm really not interested in a Democratic candidate or president who will give conservatives what they consider a fair shake.

Posted by: Jason | Apr 12, 2007 11:32:59 AM

One prob for the thesis (unlike Edwards & Clinton, he's never "taken on the man"): he was an IAF organizer, that's maybe something you should read up on.

Put it plain: Obama's a smooth operator, he's got it "in the gut" but is playing that down....

Posted by: Bill Simian | Apr 12, 2007 11:36:36 AM

Andrew Sullivan really likes Obama. I take that as a bad thing.

Posted by: Clark | Apr 12, 2007 11:55:30 AM


Yep, what a terrible thing it would be if we had a President who dispassionately and rationally analyzed national problems, thought up a way to fix them, and then used bipartisan support to get them passed.

What a horrific nightmare scenario. Clearly, this man must be stopped.

And while I don't have a problem with Edwards, and would be happy to see him President (the constant smearing of Obama engaged in by Edwards' supporters is a bit tiresome though), I don't see how any can be so sure of his "fighter" bona fides when a)when he was actually in elected office he showed no particular courage b) ran an abysmally bad Vice-Presidential campaign, especially the debate performance c) knew he would be running for President against Clinton and needed to move to her left and d) showed no particular courage in the most controversial point of his campaign (the blogger dust-up, whether he asked for resignation or not, it wasn't like he wholeheartedly backed them either).

Maybe it is a genuine conversaion to populism...maybe not. Maybe Edwards will fight as President, maybe not. But, here and elsewhere, Obama gets vetted to within an inch of his life despite a history of grassroots organization and policy success while the person with already one failed Presidential campaign gets a pass.

Of course, if you are just saying that "low-information" voters are dupes that Obama should be pandering to in order to get them to trust him by playing some kabuki theater, then fine.

But then you'd criticize Obama for the kabuki theater.

Posted by: Patrick | Apr 12, 2007 12:12:46 PM

I agree with the others... there may come a time for bipartisan reconciliation-- I hope there will-- but it's not now. I tend to like Obama for VP because in eight years the GOP may be chastened enough to at least pretend an interest in the public good again and therefore be respected somewhat, but right now they're still the flaming addicts who are robbing houses, conning bosses, and generally behaving criminally to support their habit. There are several steps abusers have to take before they can reconcile with those they've wronged, first among them admitting the injuries they've caused, and the right is nowhere near that point. IOW, they cannot be trusted, and anyone who pretends they can is ultimately an enabler, not a healer.

Posted by: latts | Apr 12, 2007 12:15:45 PM

> and then used bipartisan support to get
> them passed.
>
> What a horrific nightmare scenario. Clearly,
> this man must be stopped.

Let's see: if we have two political parties, which we do, and one of them governs in a bitterly partisan manner (which we do: the Radical Right) and the other in a bipartisan manner... What happens to our politics over time?

Cranky

Posted by: Cranky Observer | Apr 12, 2007 12:19:21 PM

"I'm really not interested in a Democratic candidate or president who will give conservatives what they consider a fair shake."

"Andrew Sullivan really likes Obama. I take that as a bad thing."

Yes, because you'd like another "fighter," to borrow that bland cliche of Bob Shrum's failed presidential campaigns. Someone who'll share your outrage and tell you what you already know so you can feel good about them.

You can have that. I'd rather have a statesman. Who needs more focus-group tested polemics designed to rally the converted and alienate everyone else? And isn't that what we already have in Bush, a stubborn partisan who can barely acknowledge his opposition?

What we need is an adult, even if that involves -- horrors! -- someone who uses facts and figures to boost his policy goals. Emotionalism can only go so far.

Transcendent figures that inspire admiration by avowed opponents are hard to come by. It'd be a shame if Obama turned into another "I will fight for you!" type.

DU

Posted by: The Mechanical Eye | Apr 12, 2007 12:24:22 PM

"Put it plain: Obama's a smooth operator, he's got it "in the gut" but is playing that down...."

Taking into account the nature of right-wing tool that is the Media Establishment, maybe you really need to pretend bi-partisanship. With Broder & Russert hating on ya, at least half a dozen blue dog Senators will get in your way.

But it really looks like Obama's comity is sincere and heartfelt, the loser.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Apr 12, 2007 12:31:15 PM

I think we can see a very related phenomenon in the Move On event and poll about Iraq.

Obama topped the poll, but Edwards topped the poll among those who actually watched the candidates speak.

As Hotline put it:

Do voters like Obama more than they like his positions?

Posted by: Petey | Apr 12, 2007 12:32:40 PM

So now Obama isn't grabbing people in the gut? What happened to the criticism that he was only grabbing people in the gut, without explaining what he wanted to do?

Pretty much every Democrat in Congress, given the chance to fix these indignities, would do it in an instant.

OK, what's stopping them?

I also think Obama lacks the motivation to begin the process of retributions against the Republicans that are going to be necessary over the next 8 years.

Retributions? That's a very illiberal term. We don't favor it in punishment of criminals, but apparently many favor it for those they particularly dislike themselves.

"let's see how we can overcome the smallness of our politics to get stuff done together." I want them fired.

Why?

The empathy and the trial lawyer background can sometimes make him a little too cute with the anecdotes.

Interesting idea. Edwards is used to dealing with juries that only have to see him for a short time, but the same manner might not work as well over the long term.

There are several steps abusers have to take before they can reconcile with those they've wronged, first among them admitting the injuries they've caused, and the right is nowhere near that point. IOW, they cannot be trusted, and anyone who pretends they can is ultimately an enabler, not a healer.

What's this, the 12-step theory of political reconciliation? Does it apply to Edwards for getting us into Iraq? I don't see evidence for this particular psychopathological approach to political differences.

if we have two political parties, which we do, and one of them governs in a bitterly partisan manner (which we do: the Radical Right) and the other in a bipartisan manner... What happens to our politics over time?

Over time people go with the people don't fail miserably due to lack of input from others and who promise bipartisanship, as shown in 2006.

Posted by: Sanpete | Apr 12, 2007 12:33:30 PM

Mechanical Eye, the concern is about two things-- first, that "facts and figures" aren't necessarily going to connect with voters. Second-- the worry is about what Obama will do once he is in office. Clinton, for example, isn't telling any Democratic activists what they want to hear, especially when it comes to the war. I do, however, trust that she has the partisan bent necessary to clean off the stains of Republican rule from the government.

When a town is facing a rash of vandalism on main street, the candidate for mayor doesn't say, "I think we need to rethink our approach to retail so we can all work together to solve this." Instead, he comes into office with a mandate to nail the vandals.

Are you seriously claiming that what we need now is someone who's going to be a bipartisan, working with Mitch McConnell and John Boehner to "come together and solve problems"? You really think that's what they're interested in?

Posted by: Tyro | Apr 12, 2007 12:35:51 PM

"I might not agree with Clinton on a lot of the issues, but rest assured she's going to start firing a lot of people in Washington who've done a lot of damage and make sure they never have a chance to work in government again."

Agree 100% with this. Except that HRC may not be the best person to do it, exactly *because* it will be so easy for the Right to scream victim and allege that it's all pay-backs for what they did to her husband.

So someone without HRC's family baggage may actually make a more effective agent for the de-Bushification purges that will be needed to get this country working again. But I completely agree about how important that step will be. No more Eliot Abrams zombies--the stake has to go through their political hearts this time.

And de-Bushification, as with de-Baathification and de-Nazification, should carry on pretty far down the hierarchical scale. Of course you toss out the appointees when you change administrations. But we're going to need to examine even the lower-level people. The assumption should be that anyone appointed under Bush is a loyal Bushie, and accordingly utterly incompetent and unfit for public service.

Posted by: Count Cant | Apr 12, 2007 12:36:37 PM

Mechanical Eye, I think you're conflating two very different things. On the one hand, you have the Bob Shrum candidates who go around telling everybody that they are a fighter. On the other hand, you have candidates who just go about fighting. E.g., on the one hand you have Al Gore and John Kerry, and on the other you have George W. Bush and (arguably) Bill Clinton.

Politics is not a fair fight. I don't mind a "transcendent figure that inspires admiration" but I would want that same transcendent figure to be ready, willing, and downright eager to stick a shiv into the neck of his GOP opponent whenever it was advantageous to do so.

Posted by: Jason | Apr 12, 2007 12:38:09 PM

Who are you supporting in your desire for bipartisanship, Sanpete? HRC? McCain?

Posted by: Petey | Apr 12, 2007 12:42:10 PM

And de-Bushification, as with de-Baathification and de-Nazification, should carry on pretty far down the hierarchical scale.

De-Bushification, that's awesome!

I say we carry it ALL the way down the hierarchical scale, all the way down to the people who voted for this disaster. They can go live in Australia.

Just kidding, of course.

If they repent, they can stay.

Posted by: Jason | Apr 12, 2007 12:45:14 PM

"De-Bushification, that's awesome! I say we carry it ALL the way down the hierarchical scale, all the way down to the people who voted for this disaster. They can go live in Australia."

Argentina, not Australia. The Bushies are all making plans to get plastic surgery and move to Argentina.

Posted by: Petey | Apr 12, 2007 12:49:56 PM

"Bipartisan consensus" and coalition building between the two parties in the Senate was extremely helpful for a long time. However, it worked because the Republicans were a permanent minority. The Democrats weren't threatened by them, and the Republicans needed to work with the Democrats to get anything done, lest they be completely shut out. Until the country is at a point where the Republicans are no longer a threat (particularly in the Senate), there isn't enough room to "work together in a bipartisan manner."

When the minority party is in such a position, then, yes, partisan bickering and petty shutting out of the voice of the opposition does point to a "smallness of our politics." It's petty and pointless. Under the circumstances, chafing under 8 years of Republican rule, the partisan struggle we're going to face is a matter of political life and death (and in the case of Iraq and Health Care issues, literal life and death).

I feel that those calling for "bipartisanship" rather than recriminations (a) don't understand the threat of having the government filled with graduates of Pat Robertson University and Heritage Foundation hacks and (b) are going to be perceived as weak by Republicans for not starting to crack down on the people responsible for mismanaging the government. The problem of the last 8 years was not "the smallness of our politics." The problem was that corrupt Republicans were in charge. We need to get over that hump before any process of national reconcilliation can begin.

Posted by: Tyro | Apr 12, 2007 1:04:50 PM

"Politics is not a fair fight. I don't mind a "transcendent figure that inspires admiration" but I would want that same transcendent figure to be ready, willing, and downright eager to stick a shiv into the neck of his GOP opponent whenever it was advantageous to do so."

Agreed. And it's pretty easy for the GOP opponent to cry foul when the one sticking the shiv in has been preaching to us about a new post-partisan politics of hope.

Posted by: Clark | Apr 12, 2007 1:05:23 PM

sorry, Clark, but I *don't* agree.

A neck is no sort of place to "stick a shiv". That maneuver should be directed at a gut, under the ribs, or just possibly between the shoulder-blades, though you have to start slow to get it between the ribs and into the thoracic cavity.

Conversely, if you want to go for the neck, you want more of a slashing motion than a sticking motion, and a razor blade will work better than something with a point.

Look, I didn't want to diss Jason about this when he first said it, but, you know, you've got to choose the right tool for the right job. And the right anatomy for the right stroke.

Posted by: Count Cant | Apr 12, 2007 1:15:09 PM

Another point to remember about bipartisanship -- the halcyon days of being able to deal across the aisle largely occurred when the two parties were not as ideologically coherent as they are now. Back in the 1960s and 70s you still had numerous liberal Republicans in the Senate, like Ed Brooke, Jacob Javitz, Mac Mathias, and quite a few others, while you also had a cadre of reactionary southern democrats like James Eastland and John Stennis from Mississippi. The Republican Party still had many people with legitimate civil rights bona fides before the Southern Strategy eroded that.

Now the parties line up much more like traditinal European parliamentary parties. The Republican Party has also been transformed into a true right wing party rather than a kind of middle of the road conservative party. It has also adopted an almost Leninist sense of discipline, with a similar view that all truths are contingent and everything is ultimately about political power.

It is extremely difficult in such circumstances to be overly bipartisan. And that's why you have seen time and time again, so-called moderate Republicans, such as Specter, Snowe, Collins, et al., stand with the most retrograde members of their party when it comes to important procedural votes.

You will see bipartisanship only if Republicans bend because of feared eelctoral consequences, see e.g. Gordon Smith.

Posted by: Klein's Tiny Left Nut | Apr 12, 2007 1:17:28 PM

I believe that Count Cant cannot be disputed on this front. You've got to gut them like a fish if its a shiv you're bringing to the fight.

Posted by: Klein's Tiny Left Nut | Apr 12, 2007 1:21:13 PM

Petey, I'm not even close to knowing whom I'll support in the primaries. It's a little early, in my view. Actually a lot early.

Until the country is at a point where the Republicans are no longer a threat (particularly in the Senate), there isn't enough room to "work together in a bipartisan manner."

Why not? What danger are you fearful of?

I feel that those calling for "bipartisanship" rather than recriminations (a) don't understand the threat of having the government filled with graduates of Pat Robertson University and Heritage Foundation hacks and (b) are going to be perceived as weak by Republicans for not starting to crack down on the people responsible for mismanaging the government.

(a) Bad actors should be replaced because they're bad, not because they're Republican, and not out of revenge.

(b) This sounds like the old "the only language they understand is force" idea. You aren't a Likudnik or Bushite are you? You sure sound like one. See (a).

The problem was that corrupt Republicans were in charge. We need to get over that hump before any process of national reconcilliation can begin.

So, it seems the cure is to get Democrats in charge, not to seek revenge. Two very different things.

Politics is not a fair fight. I don't mind a "transcendent figure that inspires admiration" but I would want that same transcendent figure to be ready, willing, and downright eager to stick a shiv into the neck of his GOP opponent whenever it was advantageous to do so.

The hypocrisy in the revenge seekers isn't hard to spot. We decry the Republicans for their harmful political practices, but as soon as we get the chance we seek to do the same things, forgetting completely what we said before.

It has also adopted an almost Leninist sense of discipline, with a similar view that all truths are contingent and everything is ultimately about political power.

And so many want us to adopt the same practices. Not good for us or the country. If bipartisanship won't work, then things will have to be done, to the extent possible, without it. But that doesn't entail that bipartisanship shouldn't be sought, or that revenge should be. That will just reinforce the polarization that has already gone too far.

Posted by: Sanpete | Apr 12, 2007 1:29:20 PM

"Taking into account the nature of right-wing tool that is the Media Establishment, maybe you really need to pretend bi-partisanship. With Broder & Russert hating on ya, at least half a dozen blue dog Senators will get in your way."

It's pretty easy to whip them in line, but you can't be a fool or blindly "bipartisan". You remove Broder by offering him a job in some obscure area (Ambassador to North Armpit or something) - he'll take it, and then you've got him on the payroll.

You don't deal with Russert at all. You get your most-connected Wall Street figure who's on your side and have an informal meet with GE execs. Nothing explicit will ever be said, but the FCC is going to be , let's call it, "more skeptical" with NBC licenses if GE doesn't show a bit of more goodwill towards the new administration. GE knows what to they have to do.

Of course, you do have to win elections first. But there's no reason why either plan can't at least be mentioned - off the record, of course - prior to the election.

Posted by: burritoboy | Apr 12, 2007 1:33:27 PM

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