Sunday, January 27, 2008

Edwards to Obama: Why I May Make the Move

Up until this point in the presidential campaign, I have supported John Edwards, as the candidate who I believe has talked most about the issues I care about – and who has taken positions which most comport with my own. But with an Edwards nomination increasingly implausible, I am considering a turn towards Barack Obama.

In his victory speech Saturday in South Carolina, Senator Obama made one of the most compelling cases yet that his focus on the process of politics matters as much or more than anyone else’s promises about what the product of their election might be:

And what we’ve seen in these last weeks is that we’re also up against forces that are not the fault of any one campaign, but feed the habits that prevent us from being who we want to be as a nation. It’s the politics that uses religion as a wedge, and patriotism as a bludgeon. A politics that tells us that we have to think, act, and even vote within the confines of the categories that supposedly define us. The assumption that young people are apathetic. The assumption that Republicans won’t cross over. The assumption that the wealthy care nothing for the poor, and that the poor don’t vote. The assumption that African-Americans can’t support the white candidate; whites can’t support the African-American candidate; blacks and Latinos can’t come together.

As a political campaign manager, I constantly have to make decisions about what direction our campaign and our message will go. The pressure to make decisions quickly and strategically often leads many in politics to accept the very same status quo assumptions that Senator Obama ticked off one by one last night. But it is also terrible to feel trapped inside of assumptions not only that our political process is deeply flawed, but also that there is not that we can do to change it.

Some observers deride Obama’s message of hope and optimism as reflecting political naivete. Another critique is that his shying away from the textbook political messaging of being a “fighter” means that he will give in too easily to the unyielding forces of the right wing.

But once we have completely fallen into the cynicism that sees such a message as naïve, why would we even invest ourselves in the political process? If the best we can hope for is a “fighter” who promises to accrue many bruises but little in the way of progress, then why would we be convinced to spend hours going door to door, let alone spend a half-hour to vote?

The brilliance of Barack Obama is that he has propagated a message of unity while still maintaining a more progressive agenda than Sen. Clinton. After many years the tired punditry which says that whoever captures the “middle” will get the most votes, Senator Obama has outdone Senator Clinton among Independents while outflanking her to the left on Iraq. After years of a post-9/11 consensus that the only way to win an election is to be “tough” on terrorism to the exclusion of all reason, Obama has beat Clinton among Independents while being less belicose about Iran. And after years of consensus that no one cares about issues like ethics reform, Obama has outdone Clinton by refusing to take any money from lobbyists.

Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, has spent more time bashing George Bush, criticizing Republicans, and reminding voters that the right-wing has long loved to attack her. But when it comes to offering voters a real vision that would move the country past the division of the Bush era, it is Obama who has the most to offer of the pair.

Obama should be lauded, too, for asking voters to put something of themselves into the process. While Edward pledges to be the “voice” for those who support him, and Clinton says she will “stand up” on their behalf, only Barack Obama asks voters to stand up on our own - and not just so that they can elect him. In South Carolina Saturday he said:

Because in the end, we are not just up against the ingrained and destructive habits of Washington, we are also struggling against our own doubts, our own fears, and our own cynicism. The change we seek has always required great struggle and sacrifice. And so this is a battle in our own hearts and minds about what kind of country we want and how hard we’re willing to work for it.

The truth of this comment reminds me also of the tiff over Senator Clinton’s comments about Martin Luther King, Jr - and how it "took a president" (i.e., Lyndon Johnson) taking the action of passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for Dr. King's dream to "[begin] to be realized". While I do not believe that Clinton intended to be disrespectful to Dr. King's memory, I still think the comment reflected a top-down view of social change, a view that Obama rightly rejects.

For months before this scuffle, Obama has been telling voters that “real change happens from the bottom up.” If you consider for a moment that it was Richard Nixon who instituted affirmative action on a federal basis, you will know that change does indeed come from below. We need to elect the best leaders, but we also need to hold them accountable, and demand that they act on the pressing challenges we face. There is no one candidate or politician of the status quo – our political system, deeply flawed by the influence of money, pulls everyone in that direction. Even a President Obama would have to be held accountable. But at least he has called on us to do the job.

In the end, then, it is not what he promises voters but what he demands of them that makes Barack Obama’s campaign so inspiring. The president who Obama has been compared to famously said to “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Forty-seven years later, your country needs you more than ever.


Bettty said...

I appreciate Koko's reflections, arguments, and of course the intense political experience he brings to this take. However, I must disagree with him on several points that I feel are important and need some elaboration here.

I do not feel that Obama's message of hope and change is naive -- however, I do think it is largely irrelevant to the task of being president of the country. Would I have voted for Martin Luther King to be president against JFK or even against Barak Obama, who at least has some experience in the U.S. Senate? No, I would have not.

I agree with Koko that meaingful social change is driven from the "bottom-up"-- which means there must be people working outside of Washington (which Barack Obama is doing now, on the campaign trail) to push the people working in it. Those people, perhaps the president above all others, is bound by many limits of the job -- and not just the limits of promises to evil lobbyists. In short, if and when Barack Obama is president, this one-on-one "relationship" to voters ends. This isn't to say that he's duping us or is insincere -- just that running for president and being president are two very different jobs. Therefore, the "standing up" and "giving voice" that Clinton and Edwards say they'll do is actually a much more accurate description of the job of being president, and I appreciate their unspun way of saying this.

Perhaps President Obama would keep some of the "you and me" rhetoric, but Obama's current rhetorical focus on the political process that Koko lauds (and rightly, for Obama's words are indeed refreshing) is precisely what turns me off of Obama as a presidential candidate. In fact, Obama's focus on this process is itself a political strategy that allows him to refresh and inspire us without talking about concrete policies which are the meat of what a president actually does.

A campaign for the president that has "inspiration" as its number one point to recommend it is not the one for me. Obama is presenting himself as a political agitator who speaks eloquently of unity -- I propose, in all seriousness, that he dedicate himself to being a new kind of social leader for the 21st century, a new kind of MLK. Based on what he has given us so far, I do not want him to be our president.

[p.s. If it matters to this argument, I am still contributing and voting for Edwards, not for my own sense of personal satisfaction, but because he is still in it for Feb 5, and because he manages to be both inspiring and substantive about presidential issues every time he speaks. We should demand the same of Barack Obama, and why we -- Democrats and Republicans alike -- do not is baffling to me.]

Nancy D., Girl Detective said...

I'm a Hillary voter myself, and while I find Obama compelling, I wonder how his message of unity would coincide with his implication that he will take political risks (such as implementing a national health care system). When you take risks, you alienate people, as Hillary well knows from her first health care fiasco. And incidentally, as LBJ found out (since you mentioned it) when he supported civil rights and lost the Democratic Party the South for going on 40 years. I find this insider/outsider discussion compelling. Hillary's LBJ/MLK remark was extremely odd and borderline offensive, but I do think the contrast of different people filling different roles is an important issue.

Koko the Clown said...

I thank Betty for her response but respectfully disagree; I would have supported MLK for president against LBJ, Barack Obama, or just about anybody else. MLK's values and vision for the country was closer to my own than any candidate for President. MLK was perhaps too committed to what he believed in to get involved with a business so dastardly as elected politics.

And yes, Nancy D, you do alienate people when you try to make change - but you can alienate people just by fighting them for power too, even if the agenda you have isn't that different from your adversary's. I am not convinced that Hillary Clinton wants to make change in a meaningful way. If she does win, I will not hold my breath expecting her to change the angry tone of our foreign policy, the notion that we should have "free trade," whatever the consequences, or her support for fairly draconian welfare reform.

On these and other issues, Obama is better, though still not outside the mainstream Democratic Party consensus which doesn't really do it for me. But I still find him a more admirable figure and a more palatable leader than Sen. Clinton.

Nancy D., Girl Detective said...

Koko, it's really interesting to hear the issues that you mention. Aside from foreign policy, those are not the ones that I am focusing on this election. Health care, the environment, and returning to a progressive tax system rank above trade issues and welfare for me. I realize these are interrelated to a certain extent, but I guess one of the reasons I support Clinton is because I think she can do a better job on these very complicated issues that will require a great deal of finesse with Congress. And I don't agree with you about her not shifting the tone on foreign policy. Though Mr. Clinton has not been sporting a very conciliatory tone recently, I think he will be a big help in this regard as he is popular around the world. I don't necessarily agree with each one of her foreign policy positions, but I think the general tone would most definitely change under a Clinton presidency.

Betty & Bimbo said...

I appreciate both of your comments. The problem for me is, I really don't see a substantial difference between Obama and Clinton, policy-wise. In everything I've heard Obama say about foreign policy, for example, he sounds pretty aggressive. Both candidates talk about ambitious health care plans with very minor differences. Both support investing in alternative energy sources. Both will face a tough Republican lash-out if they are the nominee. Both are shrewd and talented communicators. I realize that after February 5th I may have to rethink which candidate I support, and while I do sincerely think Edwards is still in it, I would have trouble choosing between Hillary and Obama.

Betty & Bimbo said...

Bimbo here:

As President, Obama will have to sacrifice exactly the issues you bring attention to, Koko. Welfare, economic justice and workers rights are issues the political center-right doesn't care about - and he will have to abandon them to "reach across the aisle" and make progress on popular centrist issues like health care [by the way, a national health care plan without mandates is unworkable]. Last night he asked us to imagine a State of the Union address which brings EVERYONE to their feet --- I do not share this goal for our country. I don't want what Kit Bond would stand for.
It is appropriate that the Kennedys endorsed Obama. He is certainly the model. A charismatic, young, fresh candidate who didn't get ANYTHING substantive done, in fact personally called Lyndon Johnson and told him to suppress civil rights legislation in the Senate so as not to endanger his fragile , uniting coalition based on Southern Democrats.

pokeepsie said...

Great post, Koko. Your reflections and arguments continue to resonate with me. That would make a great op-ed!

Barack the vote!

Koko the Clown said...

Mandates are unworkable too, Bimbo, unless you have a truly universal system paid for through taxes or other government revenue. The only candidate who did support such a system was kucinich, who is gone. Many massachusetts residents are not insured in spite of the mandate there - they just have to pay a fine now to the gov't.

What's so great about forcing people to buy private insurance? Again, this is not an argument for Obama's plan (I first and foremost support taking for-profit insurance out of the equation, but short of that believe we need to expand public programs).

I don't believe Obama is talking about reaching out to Republican members of congress, but to people across America who define their own political views in all sorts of ways, and who are turned off by a national politics that is both corrupt and divisive, and which they see as serving only the elite.