"New and Not Improved" (New York Times headline -- July 4, 2008)

The Times is shocked -- shocked! -- to discover that Barack Obama is a conventional, middle-of-the-road politician, not the second coming of Abe Lincoln and Bobby Kennedy. You may not think it's any surprise that, having safely disposed of the evil Clintons in the primaries, the Democrats' candidate has tacked right on a few issues for the general election, but the Times is deeply disappointed in the junior legislator from Illinois.

"Senator Barack Obama stirred his legions of supporters, and raised our hopes," the paper lamented in an Independence Day editorial, "promising to change the old order of things. He spoke with passion about breaking out of the partisan mold of bickering and catering to special pleaders, promised to end President Bush’s abuses of power and subverting of the Constitution and disowned the big-money power brokers who have corrupted Washington politics....Now there seems to be a new Barack Obama on the hustings....Mr. Obama’s shifts are striking, because he was the candidate who proposed to change the face of politics, the man of passionate convictions who did not play old political games."

If the paper's editorial writers really took seriously Obama's posturing about change, they are more naive even than the senator's converts on the left. Progressive idealists have an excuse in falling for his pitch. After all, if the nation doesn't find salvation by anointing the Chicago pol in November, they will be forced to fall back on the tougher job of electing a progressive majority to Congress and organizing an apparently terminally apathetic citizenry.

You have to wonder what campaign the Times has been following, though. Obama has never made a secret of who he is. Beyond the rhetoric of change and his campaign's grasp of the Internet's organizing and fund-raising capacities, he has presented himself throughout the primaries as dependably moderate -- pro-military, pro-death penalty, anti-gun control, ready to reach across the aisle -- when he has shown any interest in policy at all.

It is certainly true, as the Times says, that Obama stirred his legions of supporters by promising to change the old order of things. But this was almost entirely a matter of speechifying. In fact (and ironically, when you consider the passion with which the anti-Clinton forces hugged him to their bosoms), throughout the campaign Obama has sounded remarkably like the Bill Clinton of 1996. He did indeed speak "with passion about breaking out of the partisan mold of bickering and catering to special pleaders," but like Bill Clinton's, the likeliest outcome of Barack Obama's brand of bipartisanship will be the adoption of the conservative agenda.

Obama, the Times adds, "promised to end President Bush’s abuses of power and subverting of the Constitution" -- as who didn't? -- "and disowned the big-money power brokers who have corrupted Washington politics." It's true that Hillary Clinton couldn't find it in herself to bite the hands that fed her, but -- not to beat a dead horse -- if the Times really wanted to enlist in the fight for economic justice they wouldn't have joined the media pack in minimizing John Edwards' insurgency. In any case, about the "new" Obama the Times continues, "First,
he broke his promise to try to keep both major parties within public-financing limits for the general election. His team explained that, saying he had a grass-roots-based model and that while he was forgoing public money, he also was eschewing gold-plated fund-raisers. These days he’s on a high-roller hunt.

Even his own chief money collector, Penny Pritzker, suggests that the magic of $20 donations from the Web was less a matter of principle than of scheduling. “We have not been able to have much of the senator’s time during the primaries, so we have had to rely more on the Internet,” she explained as she and her team busily scheduled more than a dozen big-ticket events over the next few weeks at which the target price for quality time with the candidate is more than $30,000 per person.
Hard not to agree that this is a switcheroo worthy of a three-card monte hustler in Times Square. But the biggest surprise is how easily he is getting away with it. The Times deserves credit for taking him to task for what is a major sellout of reform politics; imagine the howls that would be emanating from progressive circles if John McCain or Hillary Clinton pulled a stunt like this.
The new Barack Obama has abandoned his vow to filibuster an electronic wiretapping bill if it includes an immunity clause for telecommunications companies that amounts to a sanctioned cover-up of Mr. Bush’s unlawful eavesdropping after 9/11.

In January, when he was battling for Super Tuesday votes, Mr. Obama said that the 1978 law requiring warrants for wiretapping, and the special court it created, worked. “We can trace, track down and take out terrorists while ensuring that our actions are subject to vigorous oversight and do not undermine the very laws and freedom that we are fighting to defend,” he declared.

Now, he supports the immunity clause as part of what he calls a compromise but actually is a classic, cynical Washington deal that erodes the power of the special court, virtually eliminates “vigorous oversight” and allows more warrantless eavesdropping than ever.
Again, Obama has consistently backed the Patriot Act and military spending, on occasion has gone so far as to advocate missile attacks on Iran and military action in Pakistan, and has made it clear that he is no threat to the entitlements of the military state. It's more likely he was pandering in January than July.
The Barack Obama of the primary season used to brag that he would stand before interest groups and tell them tough truths. The new Mr. Obama tells evangelical Christians that he wants to expand President Bush’s policy of funneling public money for social spending to religious-based organizations — a policy that violates the separation of church and state and turns a government function into a charitable donation.

He says he would not allow those groups to discriminate in employment, as Mr. Bush did, which is nice. But the Constitution exists to protect democracy, no matter who is president and how good his intentions may be.
If you think back to the Clinton presidency, you will remember that he, too, succeeded a failed Republican administration. If George Bush had been reelected would the Congress have funded expansion of the military? Would we have had NAFTA and trade reform, welfare reform, banking reform, telecom reform? (You are permitted to assume there are quotation marks around any appearance of the word reform on these pages.) Would the Democratic Party have abandoned its four-decade-old commitment to achieving single-payer health insurance? It requires no stretch of imagination to recognize that an Obama administration will be equally inclined to bridle any liberal excesses of the next Congress.
On top of these perplexing shifts in position, we find ourselves disagreeing powerfully with Mr. Obama on two other issues: the death penalty and gun control.
Me, too. But it's a little after the fact to bring it up now.
Mr. Obama endorsed the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the District of Columbia’s gun-control law. We knew he ascribed to the anti-gun-control groups’ misreading of the Constitution as implying an individual right to bear arms. But it was distressing to see him declare that the court provided a guide to “reasonable regulations enacted by local communities to keep their streets safe.”

What could be more reasonable than a city restricting handguns, or requiring that firearms be stored in ways that do not present a mortal threat to children?

We were equally distressed by Mr. Obama’s criticism of the Supreme Court’s barring the death penalty for crimes that do not involve murder.
In 1996, Bill Clinton suspended his presidential campaign to return to Arkansas to preside as governor over the execution of a retarded man. When someone like George Bush or John McCain favors the death penalty, you think they know not what they do. But Bill Clinton is a policy wonk. He has read the same studies you have about the negative effects of the death penalty on public policy. He knows it has no deterrent effect. He knows it is wrongly applied much of the time. He knows that innocent people die. But he had seen Mike Dukakis get Willie Hortoned, and he wasn't going to let it happen to him.

That raises a question, however: Doesn't your willingness to kill someone in order to become president automatically disqualify you from the job? In the U.S., there are on average around 30,000 deaths annually from firearms and over 200,000 non-fatal injuries. If, as Obama wishes, handguns are easier to acquire, there will be more fatalities and more injuries . If additional crimes are made capital offenses, there will be more executions. But no one will be able to say Barack Obama is soft on crime. There will be no Willie Horton for him, if he can help it.
We are not shocked when a candidate moves to the center for the general election. But Mr. Obama’s shifts are striking because he was the candidate who proposed to change the face of politics, the man of passionate convictions who did not play old political games.

There are still vital differences between Mr. Obama and Senator John McCain on issues like the war in Iraq, taxes, health care and Supreme Court nominations. We don’t want any “redefining” on these big questions. This country needs change it can believe in.
Obama partisans who are bothered by any of this offer the reassurance that he doesn't mean what he says. He is just saying what he must to get elected. Aside from the questionable wisdom of this as practical politics (viz., the candidacies of Al Gore and John Kerry), it is a little disheartening to be asked to trust that a candidate is lying.

In any case, I hold Barack Obama in higher regard than many of his supporters. To me, his campaign makes more sense if you take him at his word that he is an ambitious moderate with little interest in policy, that he is another Democratic presidential candidate whose most attractive attribute is that he is not the other guy. There is no question that there are reasons to prefer Barack Obama to John McCain, those pesky Supreme Court appointments among them. But keeping in mind the outcome of the Clinton years, whether this makes his election the more desirable remains to be seen.

1 comment:

jerryack said...

Another fine, thoughtful piece by John Gabree. John has tremendous experience and insight. We should be mindful of his conclusions and anxious to participate in fixing an incredibly broken system.

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