Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Maybe We Can...

An Obama Supporter's Call for Party Unity (With a Big
Side Dish of Barack Obama's Going to be a Good President)

Politics is a lot like art in that smart, reasonable people can look at it and see very different things. One of the bloggers I respect the most, our very own Kvatch, is not at all comfortable with the zeal of some of Barack Obama's supporters. In the previous post on this blog, he urged Obama supporters to do their part, at this crucial time, to promote party unity.

He wrote
Not only does the the Democratic Party need every supporter from both sides of the primary debate, if the two sides come together, we're unassailable. Do you hear that? Unassailable! So if the Obama supporters would just lay off for a few minutes; give a woman who ran a tenacious campaign her due; and explain to those of us on the fence why, exactly, we should support a Congressional dilettante, then maybe we'll win this election.
I couldn't agree more.

It's hard for me, as an ardent Obama supporter, to separate criticism of Obama supporters with criticism of my personal support of Obama. I am on his team. His campaign doesn't pay my checks or anything, but I am, as they say in the business, in the bag. I've made my decision. But there is no doubt that while I have gone over the top at times, some of Obama's supporters, and Hillary Clinton's as well, have clearly gone too far.

There's peril in focusing on these incidents right now. Kvatch is right. There's no value in continuing an argument against Hillary Clinton. As much as we have clamored, since February, that this is over, we now have to process that fact ourselves. The people who are not convinced about Barack Obama need to be sold on him by those of us who are. That's the task at hand. And it can be difficult. As much as he impresses me, Barack Obama is not, as he has said time and again, a perfect candidate. He makes plenty of mistakes. One of the most powerful arguments his critics use against him is that he talks about removing the influence of lobbyists from the political process, then turns around and uses money from the employees of oil companies. This is inexcusable, and the Clinton campaign hit him hard on it, and rightly so. I am tempted to add, "except the Clinton campaign took more from the same category of donors than Obama did," but that's the kind of thing we just have to let go of.

Another thing that I think Kvatch and a lot of other critics of Obama that blog and comment here don't like is Obama's sugary rhetoric. Change! Over and over we hear it. Kvatch astutely compared the rhetoric of change to Reagan's "Morning in America". I can't argue with that. That's a great criticism. I want Obama to talk about the issues and blow people away with his explanations of what he's going to do. But I am afraid that because of the media we have in this country, he can't just focus on issues. It's sad, but this is where we're at in America. We have established, proven political realities that tell us over and over again that candidates like Dennis Kucinich and Chris Dodd can not beat the Hillary Clintons of the world. The most righteous politician in the world--and my hero, Al Gore--would not even try. John Edwards recast himself well as a liberal avenger, and it went down like a lead balloon.

The way I see it, the rhetoric of change is a way to signal the American people that Obama is a candidate that will try something radically different. I don't think we have a clear sense of what that something, or things, is. If he says what he thinks it is (like when Howard Dean told Chris Mattews he would "break up large media enterprises" just weeks before the media collaborated on the Dean Scream to assassinate his character), he probably loses. More to the point, if Barack Obama thinks he truly knows what it is he's going to change, he's probably wrong. These days in America, good government rarely happens according to some plan. In order to do anything productive, a President with a lifetime of good preparation has to meet a developing situation, quickly and properly evaluate it, then make a good call.

I'm convinced that's the way Obama will do it. I'm about three quarters of the way through Dreams from my Father. I recommend it. His style is a bit slow, but he's a solid writer and this really seems like the work of an honest writer (he was 33 at the time it was published, and I doubt he had this campaign in mind). In the part I'm reading, Obama was in his early twenties and working in Chicago as a community organizer. This part of his story is especially revealing and very useful for anyone trying to understand where Obama is coming from. Obama had to reckon with a variety of local politicians and leaders in the area who had very different approaches to solving the problems of the black community. In the same unflappable manner in which he has run for president, he continued to work with everyone until they found the right mix to actually improve the community. His coalition, which until the time he brought it together did not exist, brought jobs into an area that so many would-be leaders time and again had given up on. No, the skies did not open up and a choir of angels did not sing out, but he helped make that community better.

Kvatch referred to Obama as a "Congressional dilettante." I can see where he gets that idea, but would argue that is a bit of an illusion. Yes, he's not Russ Feingold--another hero of mine who would not run for the Presidency--but, who in Senate really got anything done since Bush became President? In the fifteen months of the Democratic majority, due to the inept leadership of Harry Reid, no Senator has been able to accomplish much of anything because the Republicans are in auto-filibuster mode and the President vetoes everything that gets through. But within that context, Obama has accomplishments. Not as much as Obama wants to accomplish, which is probably why he jumped at his first opportunity to circumvent the political purgatory that is Congress and run for President.

A more reliable way of looking at Obama's record is to consider what he did at the state level. The work of state legislatures doesn't impress many people, but Charles Peters of the Washington Post recently wrote about the way Obama fought and clawed to get controversial legislation passed to videotape interrogations when he was an Illinois state senator.

Consider a bill into which Obama clearly put his heart and soul. The problem he wanted to address was that too many confessions, rather than being voluntary, were coerced -- by beating the daylights out of the accused.

Obama proposed requiring that interrogations and confessions be videotaped.

This seemed likely to stop the beatings, but the bill itself aroused immediate opposition. There were Republicans who were automatically tough on crime and Democrats who feared being thought soft on crime. There were death penalty abolitionists, some of whom worried that Obama's bill, by preventing the execution of innocents, would deprive them of their best argument. Vigorous opposition came from the police, too many of whom had become accustomed to using muscle to "solve" crimes. And the incoming governor, Rod Blagojevich, announced that he was against it.

Obama had his work cut out for him.

He responded with an all-out campaign of cajolery. It had not been easy for a Harvard man to become a regular guy to his colleagues. Obama had managed to do so by playing basketball and poker with them and, most of all, by listening to their concerns. Even Republicans came to respect him. One Republican state senator, Kirk Dillard, has said that "Barack had a way both intellectually and in demeanor that defused skeptics."

The police proved to be Obama's toughest opponent. Legislators tend to quail when cops say things like, "This means we won't be able to protect your children." The police tried to limit the videotaping to confessions, but Obama, knowing that the beatings were most likely to occur during questioning, fought -- successfully -- to keep interrogations included in the required videotaping.

By showing officers that he shared many of their concerns, even going so far as to help pass other legislation they wanted, he was able to quiet the fears of many.

Obama proved persuasive enough that the bill passed both houses of the legislature, the Senate by an incredible 35 to 0. Then he talked Blagojevich into signing the bill, making Illinois the first state to require such videotaping.

Perhaps my original intent in this post, which was to agree with Kvatch and promote Democratic party unity, has been obscured by my rambling Obama apology. I will return to the original point in a moment, but before I do, I just want to underscore the importance of an energized base. Yes, that energy has gotten very ugly at times. We need to do better. My hope is that the base will lose some of their anger and become more focused on the task of ending Republican control of the white House as the process moves forward. Because Kvatch is right, the base alone is not going to beat McCain.

Having Hillary Clinton as the Democratic Party's nominee for Vice President will help the ticket immensely. If Obama supporters think he can just pick a woman and it will get Hillary's supporters to forget the whole saga and go, "hey look, a woman's gonna be VP, whoopee!" they're nuts. If we act like women are interchangeable, this is going to be perceived as a backhanded insult. It would be like Hillary selecting a black politician to assuage Obama supporters.

In my opinion, Kvatch nailed it when he wrote that the unified party is unassailable. My hope is that in the coming weeks Obama publicly offers her the job and I hope she accepts. The idea that we would would fall apart at a time when a great victory is at hand is heartbreaking and if we let it happen, it will hurt this country for a very, very long time. Hillary Clinton doesn't have to accept the slot, but she has to be asked, and it has to be sincere.

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