Point, by Peter:
“To take a stand, to be passionate--ira et studium--is the politician's element, and above all the element of the political leader…Only he has the calling for politics who is sure that he shall not crumble when the world from his point of view is too stupid or too base for what he wants to offer. Only he who in the face of all this can say 'In spite of all!' has the calling for politics.”
- Max Weber “Politics as a Vocation”
I am still an Obama supporter…but I am now officially worried.
Not too long ago, I whole-heartedly believed that Obama was the one to turn this country around. I was confident that he was a politician who would refuse to “play the game,” who would not “triangulate,” who would not cave to special interests. And for a while, he lived up to those expectations. He talked straight about the stupidity of the gas tax holiday; he stood up to the warmongers and said “Yes, I will negotiate with Ahmadinejad”; he raised piles of money from average Joes making him less susceptible to the influence of special interest money; he embraced campaign finance reform. The electorate then gave him the incentive to continue down this path when they voted for him over Clinton, the say-anything-to-win candidate who voted for the war in Iraq in order to appear tough, and sponsored a bill making flag-burning illegal in order to appear patriotic. She was the pander candidate; he was the independent thinker.
So what, I ask, is happening to Obama and his spine?
The first clue that Obama might not have what it takes to “change politics in Washington” (as they say) came when he talked of “renegotiating NAFTA” while one of his aides, behind closed doors, told the Canadians not to worry because it was only campaign posturing. Then came his embarrassing speech in front of AIPAC in which he endorsed the saber-rattling tactics towards Iran championed by the neocons in the Bush administration when he said: “ ... There is no greater threat to Israel or peace than Iran... [M]y goal will be to eliminate this threat.” Eliminate? Sounds like Bush-speak to me. Such inflammatory rhetoric is a shocking about-face when compared to his earlier talk of a less belligerent American foreign policy. And now we have a whole host of further caves—all within the span of just a few weeks. They include: 1.) questioning the Supreme Court’s anti-death penalty ruling; 2.) supporting the Supreme Court’s anti-gun control ruling; 3.) voting for the bill that gives telecommunications companies immunity when they help the government spy on Americans; and, last but not least, 4.) backing out of public campaign financing, the centerpiece of the campaign finance bill he previously endorsed.
What, I wonder, will be left of the Obama I dreamed of voting for when November 2nd finally rolls around? With all due respect to Vince Lombardi…in politics, winning isn’t everything. If Obama wants to earn my vote, he must show that he has the guts to stand up for his principles.
Counterpoint, by Dan:
Peter, thank you for your thoughts on this. I’m sure you are giving voice to what a lot of Obama’s progressive supporters feel. But not this progressive supporter. The fact is, Peter, Obama does not have to show that he has the guts to stand up for his principles to earn your vote, and you know it, and he knows it, you both know that you both know it. There’s a limit to this way of thinking, but as you acknowledge, he hasn’t come particularly close to reaching it yet.
What I’m looking for in a Democratic President is the ability to inspire millions of Americans to believe that government isn’t a bad thing, to convincingly communicate the core political ideas of the left, and to thereby promote a shift in the ideological posture of the government, and of the people towards the government. That’s what will get the ball rolling. Just because it feels good to make progress on that front does not mean that it is anything other than a strategic objective, and that it shouldn’t be thought about as a strategic enterprise.
The decision to decline public financing is one of which I particularly approve. I don’t think there’s any valid ethical argument that he should take public financing. No, that’s not quite right – if he said he was going to when he thought he was poor, and now that’s he rich he’s changed his mind, then yes, that raises a valid ethical problem with the decision. Still, candidates for office are most definitely allowed to say they’re going to do something and then do the other thing. What we hope for in those circumstances is that they explain themselves. Obama’s explanation was disingenuous, it’s true – I would have rather he used his awesome rhetorical skill to say what he means to America, which is something that he has done with more candor and forthrightness than any other national politician I’ve ever seen, and which was, in the instance of Iran last summer, when he stuck to his guns about being open to talking with Ahmadinejad, the reason I first decided to vote for him. In this case, that might have taken the form of a more eloquent version of “well, I’m not going to try to win the presidency with $80M when I could try to win it with $300M.”
Being a good politician means being able to convince people that you are right when you don’t agree – that’s political leadership – but it also means having a good sense of when you are able to do that and when you aren’t. I’m sorry, but it means picking your battles. Sometimes I wish politicians who I support would fight fights that they choose not to fight, but the public financing issue isn’t one of them. I’m not even sure what the argument is that has Obama competing according to rules that he wishes governed the process, as opposed to those that actually do. His job is to win the presidency without breaking the rules – both the letter and spirit, sure.
Winning isn’t everything, but losing ends up being the only thing.
Posted by Dan at 10:27 AM
Dan, good points. A few words of rebuttal.
Obama may still have my vote, but he will not receive the money I had planned on donating just last week. And if he continues to pander and cave, I will not vote for him. For real. If I’m going to talk tough about standing up for principles, at some point I have to stand up for my own.
All of the qualities you say you are looking for in a candidate, as well as your hoped-for response to flip-flopping, seem to involve talking or thinking (“inspire millions…to believe”; “convincingly communicate…ideals”; “promote a shift in idealogical posture”; “explain themselves”). What about DOING? If all of his policies are watered-down, poll-tested, centrist boilerplate, how can he effectively implement the non-mainstream policies necessary to turn this country around? You are right to say that good politicians have the ability to “convince people you are right.” I propose Obama leverage his rhetorical skill to convince, promote, and explain a principled agenda, rather than use it to slither out of flip-flops and deftly tack to the center.
I’m not saying Obama has to refuse to compromise any of his principles always and forever. Sure, pick your battles. But what battles is he choosing to fight?