Monday, March 03, 2008

Policy vs. Personality

Paul Krugman and Stanley Fish offer a fascinating brace of articles in the New York Times today, making opposite argumants about Golden Boy Barry that point to the singular lack of solidity in this candidate - the empy center of The Precious, into which people insert whatever they most desire.

Krugman, in Deliverance or Diversion?, continues with his policy-above-all campaign for the Democrats, arguing that "All in all, the Democrats are in a place few expected a year ago. The 2008 campaign, it seems, will be waged on the basis of personality, not political philosophy. " While rejecting claims that The Golden One is a crypto-Republican (No, he isn't. That would require having some kind of ideology to encrypt.), Krugman sums up the true political danger of an Obama administration:

If Mr. Obama does make it to the White House, will he actually deliver the transformational politics he promises? Like the faith that he can win an overwhelming electoral victory, the faith that he can overcome bitter conservative opposition to progressive legislation rests on very little evidence — one productive year in the Illinois State Senate, after the Democrats swept the state, and not much else.
We are being asked to take on faith that The Precious will shed his campaigner's skin and become some reincarnation of Paul Wellstone. That he won't be a weaker, less committed, less effective, less Democratic version of Bill Clinton in his first term. Obama's campaign has been the force of his personality in front of large screaming, adoring crowds. As is becoming more difficult to hide, his personality tends to become far less appealing when he is questioned closely and with little sympathy. Krugman coldly points out:
Some progressives are appalled by the direction their party seems to have taken: they wanted another F.D.R., yet feel that they’re getting an oratorically upgraded version of Michael Bloomberg instead.
Big Dog craved the approval of the people around him and to that end he worked very hard to win over those who were suspicious of him. While the press and the pundits never liked him, ordinary voters still do. Why? Because he delivered substantial gains to them. The Precious wants not so much approval as adulation, and becomes arrogant and hostile towards those who are critical of him. Policy, like personality, is a tool deployed for the sake of elections and adulation. Actual work, where he could have taken on the people's business in substantive ways, got pushed aside for "present" votes and are accompanied by whines that he was "too busy" campaigning to tend to his Senate committee duties. Rank and file Democrats are only now, after over a year of campaigning and rivers of money for TV ads, beginning to very slightly prefer him, and the percentages in swing states remain very low. Why? Because he has not delivered for anyone except himself. And Tony Rezko.

You can never be guaranteed of popularity (look at Saint Ronnie's declining approvals or the precipitous drops of both Bushes or LBJ's well deserved reputation for being a nasty SOB), but you can always fall back on policy, which is Stanley Fish's point in his article "Why McCain Would Vote For Obama". Fish makes the argument that Obama's reliance on personality will be a liability against the "policy" stances of John McCain. The Golden One has done his best to try to turn pandering to a crowd into some blanket argument about his policy prowess - he had the judgment to oppose the Iraq War. Fish notes that, in politics and particularly in general elections, an absolutist position is not always the most wise:

Meanwhile, as McCain was nimbly moving around, Obama would be standing still, stuck in the one-note posture he has assumed from the beginning of the campaign. In the democratic primaries and caucuses, Obama’s strong suit – the club he used to beat up Hillary Clinton – has been the absolute consistency of his position on the war: he would have voted against it had he been in the senate at the time; he has spoken out against it repeatedly since becoming a senator; and he has promised to end it and bring the troops home within a short time.

But once McCain, and not Clinton, is his opponent, that position becomes a liability, because it can be attacked as being inflexible and without nuance. McCain can ask, Don’t you see that the situation has changed in recent months, and shouldn’t a responsible leader adjust his or her stance according to the facts on the ground? And he can add, I too had my doubts about the conduct of the war, but now a policy I long advocated has been put in place with good results. Moreover, by saying something like that he would be reminding the electorate that he knows how to think tactically about military strategies, while his opponent’s only experience in combat has been trying to figure out how to beat Alan Keyes in the Illinois senate race, something anyone with the letter D (for Democrat) after his name would have been able to do easily.

Unless Iraq is the single issue for you (and it is so salient on the Left because it can be used instrumentally to beat up HRC), Barry's one-note bleating about how he was smart 'nuff not to support that war and how this explains everything you need to know about him and his foreign policy chops (oh, yeah, that and being a clueless kid in Indonesia) goes over like a lead balloon. What Fish points out is that McCain's narrative is rooted in his policy stances, and that the personality acts as a supporting player to the policy. You may be revolted by the policy, but most Americans are ambivalent about Iraq war as such (which is a different question that wanting it to end), and someone who can give them a graceful policy exit is to be preferred to one who stakes out the moral(istic) high ground. I don't think Barry supporters understand how poorly his argument will go over with the general public.

Thus, we get the ironic inversion that the party of policy wonkery may have one of the most talented, informed, skillfull, substantive legislators in recent history, a person eminently suited to cleaning up the steaming pile left behind by the Movement Conservatives, undermined by a personality campaign, while the general could be the Republican rally of substance over style. Golden Boy Barry is a current Media Darling, but we can already see the bloom coming off that rose. Stanley Fish cuts to the heart of the primary vote tomorrow in one crystal clear sentence:

Still , I would bet that if McCain were pulling a lever in the Democratic primaries in Texas and Ohio, his vote would go into the Obama column.
Republicans in Texas and Ohio will cross party lines to try to throw the Democratic primaries to The Precious because they know they can grind him into dirt in swing states come the general election. Destroying personal honor and integrity is what they do best. Krugman cites Bob Somerby (The Daily Howler) on what awaits:

Bob Somerby of the media-criticism site predicts that Mr. Obamawill be “Dukakised”: “treated as an alien, unsettling presence.” That sounds all too plausible.
The vague and vacuous politics of Hope and Change will be converted into all the standard tropes used against Democrats the last 20 years, plus a whole new arsenal - Muslim, terrorist lover, anti-American, undeserving Affirmative Action oppotunist, bagman for Middle eastern mobsters.

A campaign based on a cult of personality cannot defend itself from the deconstruction of that mythos.



David said...

These are Republican talking points one and all. Right in line with the new shift in Clinton strategy to hang in beyond all hope of winning just for the opportunity to so damage Miracle Boy that the election will go to McCain and she can start preparing for 2012.

I'm so disgusted with both of them that I'm writing-in Edwards.

Anonymous said...

As always, a gracefully written and insightful essay. I completely agree that Hillary Clinton is a rare commodity, and that it would be a real tragedy for the country if she does not become President. I wouldn't have felt this way six months ago; but after having watched her blossom on the stump, and listening to her truly FDR-like agenda, I am convinced that she is the last progressive hope in this country. If Obama is nominated, we either get a rather lazy and self-indulgent tyro who will try to be bipartisan and thus make no significant changes, or we will get another Republican. And after Obama we will probably get series of conservative Democrats like Mark Warner or Evan Bayh.

In a hundred years, if humankind still exists, and someone writes the story of the decline of America; it will be said that whether because of bad fortune, an uninformed electorate which kept choosing wish-laden tabulae rasae over thoughtful and competent leaders; or because it was all a fixed game controlled by corporate media to lead the populace to an intended result; this country made one bad presidential choice after another, sealing its decline. I often feel as if I am in the middle of an already scripted plot.

I write this on the morning of March 4. There seems a good chance that Clinton can win both Texas and Ohio; but that it may not matter, if the media downplays the results, and if Obama can strongarm enough superedelegates to ratify a nomination which would be won through a series of big wins in stacked caucuses and victories in deep red states where the Democrats have absolutely no chance of winning in the Fall. It would be like a driver seeing the approaching cliff, and then willfully pushing past all the warning barriers with the attitude of "well, since we've come this close to the edge, we might as well keep on going until the end."