Response to Scott on Obama

Friend of Indistinct Union, Politics of Scrabble, has this to say after watching Obama’s victory speech last night:

Listening to Barack Obama with Russert on Meet the Press this past Sunday and tonight giving his victory speech in Raleigh, I have been struck but how much I agree with the criticism that Obama sounds like a conventional liberal. The number of uninspired lines that he mouthed tonight, straight out of the traditional Democratic play book, really and truly astounded me in a way that it hasn’t previously.

He offers two theories (as compared to Iowa winning Obama)

1. Because BO was having trouble beating Clinton among core Democratic constituencies he had to employ this type of language–leaving open whether he could turn back around now that he enters the general or once he would be elected and governed.

2. Early on he was simply abstract and non-specific. This latter talk is revealing more of who he really is, as it were.

Possibility #3 I would say is a combination of the two.

But that aside, here is the more important part and a very interesting question:

There is no doubt that Obama is a liberal, they key question here is whether that liberalism is conventional or not. Perhaps it was wishful thinking to entertain otherwise, but I must say, I really did see a glimmer of something different in that soaring rhetoric that, like many others, pulled me into an excitedly different degree of engagement…But if Obama’s impact on twenty-first century liberalism won’t even be as substantial as Bill Clinton’s in the late twentieth century, then I’m not entirely sure why he’s in the race.

Well it, uh, depends on the meaning of the word “conventional.” I see him more in the tradition of progressives, with his community organizer, “we are the change”, “it’s up to you”, grass roots style. Clinton represents conventional liberalism in the LBJ model of a patrician wheeler and dealer command and control structure. So he’s not conventional in the line of a LBJ-Carter-Mondale liberalism.

He is conventionally liberal I would say in terms of policy prescriptions particularly on health care and environment. I don’t think that’s all bad, though I wish he would take different angles on the issues. He has made gestures at different points to possible non-conventional liberal turns on affirmative action and education.

I think he (O-b) does actually represent new thinking in terms of foreign policy. There I think he is quite non-conventional in his anti-Iraq/pro-Afghanistan stance. I think Democrats have in the post 9/11 fallen into a conventional mindset of fearing being labeled appeasers/pansies and have either sought to minimize foreign policy to domestic or go hardline (Hillary’s move).

And lastly he is unconventional relative to Clintonian triangulation in just saying things straight up. And when he gets attacked for something he says, he responds with that’s what I meant. He doesn’t play this conventional Democratic game of feeling out of touch with “real” America as defined by the conservatives and then flagellating themselves in public and then trying to “Bubba-ify” their political games. Only the Clintons pull that one off, everyone else (from Dukkakis to Kerry) looks the fool doing it. On the downside, Obama might seem aloof or unwilling to get the negative response, but at least he’s straight up.

So moving to the comparison to Bill Clinton, this is a good question.

Clinton’s legacy is basically to have been a very effective moderate Republican. His legacy was to turn the Democratic Party into the DLC/New Democrats of the 90s, i.e. centrist liberalism. Clinton also left the Democratic Party in horrific institutional standing–having lost the Congress, Governorships, state parties–leaving open the doors for Rovian electoral politics. He tried to be a liberal/progressive with health care, it failed, they lost the Congress, and any chances he had for liberalism died with the 94 election. That he managed to win re-election and come back (even with the impeachment) is a testament to his political skills. But for (contemporary) liberalism, he didn’t achieve all that much, minus some Supreme Court Justices.

Not to mention a mixed bag in foreign policy (Balkans on the plus when nudged by Biden and Rwanda, Somalia, & Iraqi sanctions, on the negative).

Obama already through the de-throning of Clinton II has moved (or rather symbolizes the move already underway) to a post-Clintonian Democratic party/liberalism. The ascendancy of netroots, information economy sectors, and youth. He also is a part of (and would further I imagine) a renewed and strengthened Democratic Party. We’ll see how he works with the Legislature if he is elected. He has a great deal of experience as an elected member of legislatures–state and federal whereas Clinton was a Governor.

The Democratic Party will become at least for a decade the de facto national party. There are already massive fractures within that Big Tent, which are clear from this primary, and Obama will be at the head (if he wins) of that coalition. He will be the first of a new Democratic Party, which will be interesting to see how he runs it and he how is either able or unable to cement major elements of that coalition that will endure (a la FDR).

On the other hand one could argue I suppose that even if Obama’s impact on 21st century liberalism was not as big as Clinton’s in the 20th, that might be a good thing. Namely that the party moves on its trajectory and as a party becomes stronger. The Democratic Party for too long, to quote Bill Bradley, has been like an upside pyramid with the whole weight resting on the inverted apex (namely the President or Presidential Candidate).

I see Obama more as a transitional figure to the kind of figure both Scott and I would like to see. Obama would open the door (perhaps just a crack but that hopefully would be enough) to the kind of 21st century politician. Obama would be the bridge figure in this scenario: the first of the 21st century (mentally not chronologically which is Bush II but he is a creature of the Boomer 20th century order). He has already defeated one (Clinton II) of the Boomer throwback to the 90s figures and will take on the other McCain. If McCain (or had Hillary) gets elected, then that necessity is simply thrown back another 4 or God forbid 8 years.  The change is gonna come, as they say, but it would be better that it happens sooner rather than later, so we can get to the real action the post-Obama  presidency.

He would also put the nail in the coffin of the current Republican (dis)order. In that sense, Obama could be credited, if Newt is right in his prediction of a coming catastrophe for the Republicans, with making them fundamentally re-think, re-orient, and re-organize the Republican party.

He ends the Boomer era in politics. All sorts of creative energy and thought and possibilities could be and will be opened up by that occurrence. I would not however bet on Obama to be able to take advantage of all those openings at least in the manner in which I would like him to–because again he is more conventionally liberal than I. In that sense, I think he re-jiggers the entire political edifice. What shakes out of that is anybody’s guess. That more than anything is why I support his candidacy. We stand at the end of the Reaganite coalition, as Jack Balkin says, and if Obama wins he gains in mythos relative to McCain (or even had it been Hillary) and Bush II. He appears as a fresh figure and could likely–even with a smallish type win–gain a “mandate” feel from both the media and the populace (and given he will for sure have an increased Democratic Congress), which could allow him room to maneuver other politicians would not.


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  1. […] So in regards to Obama and what he might portend for American politics, I tend to agree with Chris Dierkes at Indistinct Union when he says, […]

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