Friday, January 04, 2008

The Warrior or The Priest?

My good friend TJ is still very skeptical of Obama.

Now, it is important to understand that TJ is a good man with a good political mind. TJ has good progressive Democrat credentials extending back through his parents who participated in the civil rights movement in Evanston, Illinois. TJ is very active in local school politics in Madison, Wisconsin. He is one righteous dude...

But TJ is perplexed and even a bit disappointed in my support for Obama. It is not that I might have made a rational political calculation to support Obama over the other candidates in the Dem field, according to TJ; he can handle that. Rather, it is the fact that I am "excited" about Obama that weirds him out the most, that I buy into the Obama-mystique to a certain degree... I'm really freakin' him out.

To briefly paraphrase TJ's argument against Obama:

• TJ states that after 7 years of Republican disaster (and really three decades now of a rightward march in American politics), 2008 offered a real opportunity for the Democrats to nominate a true progressive who would level a very direct attack on the Republican Party and on conservative ideology, in general, restoring a kind of liberalism/progressivism to American politics. He does not see Obama as fulfilling this opportunity/possibility. TJ sees Obama as a centerist Democrat, tacking rightward, and not progressive in much of any respect. In fact, TJ argues that Obama's entry into the race and his move to the center - running a "non-ideological" campaign, as Axelrod says - hindered the chance for the true progressive voice in the campaign, John Edwards, to be heard and thus be successful. He thinks that without Obama in the race, Edwards would have had a real shot at beating Hillary for the nomination... and, according to TJ, that would have been much better than a "centerist" Obama nomination/administration.

• Like many of us, TJ is pissed by what has happened to the country, the Constitution, and our global standing under the Bush Republicans and sees the chance to finally change the tide dramatically in the other direction after three decades of Republican/conservative/rightward rule. He clearly doesn't think it is possible to compromise with conservatives, or "bring them to the table." He thinks you "draw a line" and then fight for your side. TJ wants a progressive "warrior" who will do battle with the injustices of the system. So, he "resents" Barack Obama's appeal to Independent and Republican voters greatly and sees this as fundamentally flawed analysis/strategy. As TJ says (I'm paraphrasing), "Obama fundamentally misdiagnoses the problem. The problem hasn't been 'partisanship,' as he claims. The problem has been conservative policies and the lunacy of George Bush's foreign policy. So, the solution isn't unity and hand-holding. The solution is to stand up, point to Republicans and their policies and call them out forcefully, to repudiate them." Given this view, perhaps not surprisingly, TJ is "offended" by Obama's suggestions that he might bring some select Republicans into his administration.

• TJ is cynical about the rhetoric of "unity" and "hope" that Obama employs. He buys the pundits' line that this is so much hot air and not backed up by substance... and what substance there is reeks of the centerist-conservative Democratic Leadership Council, he claims.

• TJ is further cyncical about the huge turn-out by the under-30 crowd. He thinks these people are attracted to the feeling of Obama - the rock star quality of his charisma and youth and overall hipness - rather than any core set of ideas or principles. As such, they are a fleeting constituency and not to be counted on or trusted... and not, in present mindless form, the basis of any progressive movement for change.

** So, TJ would ask, what really lies at the core of Barack Obama? How does he fulfill the opportunity to make a direct, progressive appeal to voters who are weary of 7 years of disastrous Bush policies and ready for real change? How does he seize the opportunity to seize not merely power back for the Democrats, but the soul of the Democratic Party back from three decades of rightward drift??!! How, in short, is Obama better than John Edwards who makes the direct populist assault on corporate interests?

Since I've gone pretty hard for Obama and against Clinton all these weeks, I thought I'd post TJ's critique with the hope of stirring the pot to see if any readers have a response, a comment, an agreement, a challenge, a rebuttal, or an amen...

If you are an Obama-person, will you share a bit about what it is that captures you about him and his candidacy?  Can you explain to TJ why he should give Obama consideration...?

NOTE: TJ, please feel free to chime in and clarify your view if you don't think I captured it accurately here...


  1. I'll start by openly admitting that I don't approach politics with a strategy-and-tactics mindset, which might explain why I'm not compelled by the picture Patrick paints of TJ's argument for Edwards.

    I am afraid that a "warrior" approach to politics can do nothing but further the stalemate scenario we've been living through. Fighting leads to entrenchment, which means either nothing happens or we seesaw as power shifts hands. You don't change people's minds by fighting with them; if you "win," you just send them back to figure out how they can "win" next time.

    Obama's rhetoric taps directly into my belief that we need to shift from a zero-sum fighting metaphor for politics back to a framework which acknowledges that politics (and life) is about compromise and cooperation. The latter metaphor is a whole lot harder to promote in soundbites and punditry, but I also believe that we have the tools now to practice politics that goes beyond that.

    Hopefully, whatever becomes of Obama's own candidacy, there's something of substance in the rhetoric; if so, it could be fertile grounds for Patrick's vision of small 'd' democracy.

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  3. I just want to say that Patrick did a fair job representing my thoughts. Some quibbles here and there, but the basic points are right.

    One thing to clarify. After a primary season I've always been ready to support/accept nominees I don't love, to embrace the "strategy and tactics mindset," but it is the first week of January and I'm having trouble swallowing it so early.

    One thing to add is that despite Huck’s win, I think one lesson from Iowa and the lesson from the fact that Edwards is all but dead at this point is that money talks and big money dominates the conversation. Nothing new, but the reminder does contribute to my unhappiness.

    As to Joe's comment, I can only point to the amazing success the GOP has had in winning real victories in every area of American life via a "take no prisoners" politics. I'll add that on many, many things it is a zero sum game and pretending it only serves the status quo. Here is a short list: Reproductive rights, health care, tax policy, torture, the fourth amendment, gay rights, affirmative action, gun regulation... I don't think that there is much middle ground worth moving to on any of these and I certainly don't think that those who have blocked progress in these areas deserve a seat at the table to help search for that elusive middle ground. I also disagree that the centrist sound bytes are harder to promote; I think they are much easier to promote. If they weren't, why would they be so popular that everyone from Obama to Bush uses them and wins with them? It is harder to make people take sides.


    PS – You forgot the hat tip to John Milton Cooper Jr.

  4. I'm for Obama. I like Edwards too, and I'm all for the populist, anti-corporate message. But it can only go so far. Gore tried that appeal in 2000 and it didn't work. I know this year is different due to all that we've seen from the conservatives, but there are still good intentioned people out there who think that things haven't been that bad.

    Now, I do think that once Obama is in Washington, in '09, gearing up for his Health Care reform push, that he's going to realize those huge corporate interests aren't going to give an inch and he's going to have to get tough, if he wants to maintain his support and not just go down with the ship. But it's because he doesn't focus on ideology that he'll be able to create the best, long-lasting approach to ideas.

    Ideology is dangerous, and because Obama isn't fighting with ideology is why he is so appealing. Do you really think that the rock star appeal is all that the under-30 crowd likes about Obama? That it stops there? I think once the hope and unity message break the apathy that those hopeful, energetic people realize, no we do not want any more wars for resources, yes we want health care for all, no we do not torture ever, yes we are going to save our environment in time.

    What sounds better? S-CHIP or the Patriot Act? On name alone which one would get the most support? Republicans are the politics of fear and Democrats the politics of hope. In our pick a side setup, one embraces the future, the other does not. Fear vs. hope, what a conversation to have with all the conservatives in our midst.

    I'm so tired of the big government vs small argument. If neither work, than it doesn't matter. Capitalism vs socialism. Conservative vs liberal. In those battles, I don't think anything really gets done without brute force. Are we democrats really the type of people for brute force???

    We are still in the battle of ideas. The way we get to those is crucial. In my view, Obama offers the best road.

    Obama/Edwards '09!