Fear of a Barack Planet

16 Aug

Max Sawicky worries that Barack Obama may be “turning into the DLC candidate, in all but name.” Color me unconvinced. As I noted before, what the DLC considers “centrist” isn’t necessarily the political center but a political average distorted by outliers on the conservative side. I haven’t seen that in Obama’s policies.

What Sawicky is looking for is an unabashed, lefty candidate with big, progressive vision and social-democratic economic policies to match. For the most part, that’s great. But his candidate is going to need some independent/moderate Republican appealing rhetoric to match. Sawicky’s analysis of recent political history also confuses the message with the results:

The Bushists got some big things done — they were all crap — but it wasn’t by playing to the center. It was by exploiting their political advantage.

Bush was elected¹ in 2000 thanks in part to “compassionate conservatism,” which offered all the benefits of the Clinton years along with a shiny coat of conservative rhetorical wax for his base. That, plus Clinton fatigue, allowed Karl Rove to exploit the political margins and pull out a win². He was indeed playing to the center. And when circumstances offered the administration a chance to put neoconservative policies into action, they took it. Their “political advantage” was temporary, circumstantially driven, and–at one time–broadly popular. The Iraq War was a great struggle to rally your base and reelection campaign around, but once you don’t find WMD, botch the transition and reconstruction, well, your poll number s tend to drop. Wedge issues (like gay marriage) are really the only place you can get leverage and, again, that’s only at the margins. It’ll put you over in a close race (but is also only a temporary victory, thanks to changing demographics which are more favorable to liberal social attitudes).

When the Bush administration tried to stray into Club For Growth territory with partial Social Security privatization, it failed. Most of their crap policies were done under cover of the executive: wire-tapping, Supreme Court nominations, FEMA screw-ups. Medicare part D is also bad policy, but that isn’t because it was too conservative. The Bush strategy was to bring along key electoral interest groups by making feints toward certain conservative policies and capitalizing on the fear of terrorism.

Importantly, there’s an implicit criticism in Sawicky’s argument:

The last thing we need, at a point where the Democrats can establish a decisive margin of political power, is somebody out to unify the country.

The reaction against unity (besides the false “seriousness” of bi-partisanship or faux-centrism of Joe Liberman) is a need to exact some sort of price for years of Republican rule that often ignored even the most modest (and moderate) of Democratic positions. But what makes a candidate like Barack Obama successful is that he make conservatives feel like he understands their position, while still standing for strong liberal principles. Americans, in my view, will want to vote for a candidate who symbolizes change but doesn’t castigate them for holding different political values. The Democrats can’t turn a viable electoral margin into political revenge. Liberals are going to have to give some moderate Republicans a pass, in spite of supporting an incompetent administration for years. They just won’t be enacting any more crap policies.

¹ Yes, I know, technically not elected. He won the Supreme Court election.

² See above.


2 Responses to “Fear of a Barack Planet”

  1. Alexander Dietz August 20, 2007 at 11:45 am #

    Of course he was elected. He may not have won the popular vote, but he won the electoral vote, and the electors are the people whose job it is to elect the president. You may not like the Electoral College, but it’s the system we’ve got, so don’t just pretend it isn’t.

  2. paxamericana August 20, 2007 at 2:11 pm #

    He may not have won the popular vote, but he won the electoral vote…

    Well yes, but that electoral vote was in dispute. The legal remedy, while decisive (but not unanimous) produced what Cass Sunstein calls“Order Without Law”. I have nothing against the Electoral College (though I’m not particularly enamored with it either), I was just being snarky about the way the Court worked things out.

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