Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Is Obama's dream coalition feasible?

The "Hive" at Brook Farm (don't ask: let's just say they were 125 years or so ahead of the legendary hippies of "culture war" nightmares)

I'm assuming that Barack Obama will be the Democratic nominee. It's pretty hard to see how Hillary Clinton can overcome his lead and momentum at this point. Having said that, I'm not one to wring my hands over the idea that the "super-delegates" might vote in some different proportion than the elected delegates. That was the idea of having super-delegates, that the experienced pols would have some say along with the primary and caucus voters. Good or bad, that's the idea of the super-delegates.

I certainly will support Obama with enthusiasm over 100-Years-War McCain - though neither Obama's or Clinton's program on getting out of the Iraq War is adequate. But Obama's post-partisan hopes give me more of a chill than a thrill when I think of how determined and relentlessly partisan today's authoritarian Republican Party is. Elizabeth Drew's piece in the current New York Review of Books, Molehill Politics 03/18/08 (04/17/08 edition) reminded me of this.

Drew is not exactly nice to Clinton. For instance, she writes:

It's been long said among politicians that "the Clintons will do anything to win." Unfortunately, they are increasingly proving the point.
But is this a substantive criticism or standard press Clinton Rules? Here's her supporting evidence:

As the primaries in Texas and Ohio approached, the Clinton campaign, which has a tendency to announce its next steps, said that it would use a "kitchen sink" strategy against Obama - and so it did: with the famous and apparently effective "red phone" ad questioning his fitness to be commander in chief; and in frequent and heavy-handed conference calls to reporters (an innovation), in which Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson makes charges against Obama, raises questions about him, or moves "goal posts" designating what Obama has to do to win. (Obama "has to win Pennsylvania," which few think is likely.) This propaganda makes its way onto cable and other news outlets. But where does, or should, a "kitchen sink" strategy belong in a presidency? (my emphasis)
You know, I just can't quite picture the "red phone" ad as being on the level with, say, the Watergate burglary or Nixon's "Plumbers" (to take a couple of examples from more innocent days), or of the Scalia Five appointing Junior as President in 2000 or the Ashcroft-Gonzalez Justice Department pursuing crassly partisan prosecutions like that against former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman (to take examples from our own Dick Cheney era).

Gosh, a Clinton spokesperson is trying to change the perceived goalposts for the opposing candidate? Bring out the smelling salts, I believe I'm going to faint!

Yo give Drew what amounts to a compliment in the sad state of our national "press corps" these days, she didn't twist some obscure comment of Bill Clinton's to be "playing the race card". The main point I'm trying to make with this is that she's criticizing Clinton for such tactics, and looking favorably on what she sees as Obama's alternative vision:

Hillary Clinton is employing conventional politics, while Obama is trying to create a new kind of politics. Similarly, as they respond to the country's desire for change, they have very different concepts of what "change" means: briefly, for Obama it means changing the very zeitgeist of Washington, creating a new way to get things done by building coalitions that transcend longstanding political divisions. For Clinton it means passing bills - though sometimes she has suggested that it means electing a woman president. ("I embody change," she said in a debate in New Hampshire.) (my emphasis)
Hey, I'd love to change the "zeitgeist" in Washington, too. Personally, I have a soft spot in my heart for the zeitgeist of the Fourier-inspired communes in the early nineteenth century. If the spirit of the age in Washington became Fourierism instead of Cheneyism, I don't doubt it would be a vast improvement. (But then so would Nixonism!) Yeah, Brook Farm on the Potomac. Sounds good to me. Gets my inner hippie all excited and stuff. She continues, first quoting Obama:

Everybody has got a ten-point plan on everything. You go to Senator Clinton's Web site, my Web site, they look identical.... The problem is not the lack of proposals. The question is, who can bring Democrats, independents, and Republicans into a working majority to bring about change. That's what we're doing in this campaign. This is what a working majority looks like. That's how we're going to move the country forward. That's what I offer that she can't do.
Obama has a big idea: he believes that in order to change Washington and to get some of those ten-point programs through, and to reduce the power of the lobbies and "special interests," he must first build a large coalition - Democrats, independents, Republicans, whoever - to support him in his effort to change things. He has figured out that he cannot make the kinds of changes he's talking about if he has to fight for 51–49 majorities in Congress. Therefore, he's trying to build a broader coalition, and enlist the people who have come out to see him and are getting involved in politics for the first time because of him. If he can hold that force together, members of Congress, including the "old bulls," according to a campaign aide, "will look back home and see that there is a mandate for change." Thus, Obama talks about working "from the bottom up" to bring about change. When he says he will take on the special interests and the lobbies, to him it's not as far-fetched as most jaded Washingtonians think: he intends to do that with the army he's building. (my emphasis)
Charles Fourier (1772-1837), a far more sympathetic zeitgeister than Dick Cheney, despite his grumpy expression in this picture

I really don't mean to be cynical about this. Hey, I'm a Jacksonian Democrat, I really believe in change being demanded "from the bottom up". Pretty much every reform or major policy change to benefit working people has come about that way, as far as I can see. Without that, we have two parties of Big Capital arguing over the best way to bail out billionaires who, say, staked a lot of cash on Bear Stearns. Just to take a random example. And I think we could very well be experiencing a national "democratic moment", to use a Jerry Brown term.

But my question is this. If Cheney and Bush can lose the Presidential election and still take power, if they can get more-or-less everything they want for years including a war of aggression in Iraq with a thin or smaller margin in Congress, why can't the Democrats get some of our programs through? When the Dems got a majority in both Houses of Congress in the 2006 elections, it suddenly became conventional wisdom among the punditocracy that you couldn't pass anything in the Senate unless you had 60 votes. They didn't think that when the Dems were in the minority. The Republicans were willing to flush the filibuster tradition in the Senate down the toilet to get their reactionary judges approved. In fact, when Clinton was in office they blocked all kinds of judicial appointments so that they had lots of judicial openings when the Scalia Five put Cheney and Bush in office.

That new zeitgeist isn't going to be worth much if it doesn't also result in what Drew seems to think is a trivial matter, "passing bills". Sure, it much more dull for our bored press corps than partying with the Maverick at his "rustic cabin". But "passing bills" to provide universal health care or provide better protection for union organizing sounds pretty doggone good to me.

And Republicans aren't going to change until the Democrats learn how to fight them effectively. When President Obama shows that he can ram important programs through Congress repeatedly despite the scorched-earth opposition tactics of the Cheneyized Republican Party, then we'll have some of them talking "constructive bipartisanship" or some such thing.

The Democrats' biggest problem during the travesty of democracy known as the Cheney-Bush administration has not been that they weren't too willing to be bipartisan. On the contrary, they were willing to be bipartisan by lying down and letting the Republicans roll right over them, again and again.

William Polk, one of the best-informed opponents of the Iraq War, reminds us of this often-paralyzing reluctance of the People's Party (that's the Dems, by the way) to fight these crooked, authoritarian, sleaze-slinging Republicans in Notes for lectures before the Economic Club of Phoenix, Arizona and the Committee for the Republic in Washington D.C. 03/01/08:

On a personal note: I have recently been asked by both Democratic and Republic [sic] members of Congress to help prepare legislation aimed at getting us out of Iraq safely, quickly and at minimum cost. So I have spent a good deal of time with our representatives. The first thing one hears from them is their fear of being thought "not to support our troops." That has become a sort of mantra. It partly explains, I think, why the Congress is not playing the role in foreign affairs it is Constitutionally obligated to play. With few exceptions in either party, Congressmen do not even ask questions of key witnesses. For example, no one questioned General Petraeus on his counterinsurgency strategy for Iraq. It appears that they don’t want to hear the answers, only to be reassured that, hopefully, those in charge know them. This explains why no one asked Petraeus serious questions – such as where his strategy has ever worked or whether it is really new. The importance of this failure was long ago identified for us by that great Conservative, Edmund Burke, when he commented on the British inability to think clearly about the American evolution. "No passion," he said, "so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear." (my emphasis underlined)
Now Obama doesn't strike me as a fearful man. But I can't help but worry that for some Dems, the illusion of making it to Brook Farm without having to fight the Republicans is a big part of his appeal. If we're going to get to the Promised Land, or even capture of few parcels of it, it's not going to be by our party leaders being too afraid to fight the Republicans. And, sad to say, that's what too many of them have been the last several years.

It obviously horrifies the delicate sensibilities of Elizabeth Drew that Vile Hillary would be so ruthless as to run a television ad suggesting that she would be the better Commander-in-Chief during military emergencies. Why, that's "doing anything to win".

But if Obama isn't willing to take on the great Maverick in the fall election over his foreign and military policies, Mr. 100-Years-War will be in the White House in January of 2009. And the US military will be fighting in Iran not long after that.

Having seen him in the primaries facing a genuinely tough opponent in Hillary Clinton, I see that Obama has a lot of fight in him. And I hope he keeps it front-and-center in the "the general", as the pundits now refer to the general election.

Because you can be very sure the McCain-Lieberman administration won't look much like Brook Farm. And the only Hive we'll see is the swarm of corporate fat-cats and war profiteers swarming around to get their cut of the tax dollars.

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