LIEB 101 at The University of Iowa: The Obama Strategy to Build the Progressive Movement
Yesterday, reader Jay said (emphasis mine, throughout this post):
Looking at past voting record [sic] and things said before running for president can be useful, but this dialog between Obama/Hillary/Edwards is just posturing.
Either make your decision based on their voting records prior to about 2004, randomly pick one of the three or just don't vote. If voters were rational, I would suspect that Kucinich would be the front running democrat...
As it turns out, I am happy to talk about Rep. Kucinich now since I finally understand his Grand StrategyTM to build a real progressive movement in America. It's clear from this:
“I hope Iowans will caucus for me as their first choice," Kucinich said in a statement. "But in those caucus locations where my support doesn't reach the necessary threshold, I strongly encourage all of my supporters to make Barack Obama their second choice. Sen. Obama and I have one thing in common: Change.”
I think that makes Total SenseTM. There are a number of ways in which Sen. Obama embodies the very kind of ChangeTM that Rep. Kucinich is evidently in favor of. Let's discuss a few examples first because they provide us significant insight into how a President Obama will help build a real progressive movement once he is in office.
Running to the right on health care and social security combined with the anti-gay gospel singer, taking Robert Novak smears at face value, repeating Jeff Gerth lies and now going after Paul Krugman, leads me to the niggling awareness that this is a conscious, if subtle, strategy. Any one of those things could be an accident, and perhaps some of them are. But taken as a whole, conscious or not, liberal fighters in the partisan wars are being sistah soljahed. Unlike the big issue of Iraq where being on the right side is being on the left side, these little digs and policy positioning are all sweet spots for the Village --- and sore spots for the base.
I'd add a couple [m]ore incidents to the list, such as Obama calling Daily Kos boring, the Joe Anthony MySpace incident, triangulation on religion, Iraq and Iraq, and an, um, frosty relationship with the blogosphere, This sort of thing has happened often enough that it certainly seems like a pattern.
Matt Stoller at Open Left provided some examples as well of how Sen. Obama has been Consistently Fighting Tooth and NailTM for the progressive movement during this Presidential campaign (apparently just like Rep. Kucinich):
Since declaring for President, [Sen. Obama] has called Social Security a 'crisis', attacked trial lawyers, associated unapologetically with vicious homophobes, portrayed Gore and Kerry as excessively polarizing losers, ... ran against the DC establishment while taking huge amounts of cash from DC, undermined Ned Lamont in 2006,...compiled opposition research on the most effective liberal pundit in the country, refused to promise that American troops would be out of Iraq by 2013, and endorsed the central plank of the Bush-Cheney foreign policy doctrine, the war on terror.
Indeed, there are other Minor DetailsTM about the ChangeTM that Sen. Obama represents that has clearly gotten Rep. Kucinich delirious with delight. I'm talking about things like, say, Iraq:
With respect to Sen. Obama's self-touted opposition to the Iraq war and how his "foreign policy experience" (for lack of a better phrase) has "helped inform [his] opposition to the war in Iraq", I see little evidence for this especially given that all of that Magnificent ExperienceTM didn't prompt him to block funding for the war or force a timeline based withdrawal from Iraq from 2004 through 2006*. Even in 2003, he was forced by the Black Agenda Report to republish his 2002 speech opposing the war on his U.S. Senate campaign website after they discovered it had been removed from the site and wrote that his campaign was largely non-responsive about their queries about the removal. Further, on more than one occasion, he gave the impression that he might have voted differently if he had actually been in the U.S. Senate at the time of the Iraq resolution.
I'm also talking about things like Sen. Obama's position that ducking key votes considered important by progressives represents Principled LeadershipTM, that hiring Washington Establishment advisors with a history of making serious errors signifies ChangeTM, that labor unions are Effectively EquivalentTM to Big Pharma and insurance companies, and so on. Further, who can forget these immortal words of Sen. Obama where he equated conservatism, as opposed to progressivism, with the belief "that you make progress by sitting down listening to people, recognizing everybody's concerns, seeing other people's points of views and then making decisions":
I'm not an ideologue, never have been. Even during my younger days when I was tempted by, you know, sort of more radical or left wing politics, there was a part of me that always was a little bit conservative in that sense; that believes that you make progress by sitting down listening to people, recognizing everybody's concerns, seeing other people's points of views and then making decisions.
As I said not too long ago:
I systematically examined key aspects of Sen. Obama's voting record and statements over the years to assess how his record stacks up on the issue of triangulation. I used his votes, statements and behaviors on a large number of topics, grouped into the following sections in order to reasonably assess his inclinations: No Compromises Before Getting Elected, Iraq, Iran, MoveOn.Org and Petraeus, Abortion, Gays, Faith and Religion, War, Corporations, Supreme Court, Social Security, Healthcare, Joe Lieberman, The Piece-de-resistance, and The Non-Ideologue v. The Partisan.
Here is a summary of my findings:
(a) Sen. Obama has shown a tendency to either say nothing on controversial matters, or vote "present" or skip controversial votes, or enlist the help of controversial supporters for winning votes, and claim later that his position was different from what the vote or position entailed or what the supporter believed. On some votes or policies, he offered the excuse that he did what he did to help fellow Democrats win elections or avoid election losses.
(b) Sen. Obama has shown a very strong tendency to repeatedly use false right-wing frames to negatively describe the left or Democrats in sweeping fashion on a number of issues. He has also exhibited a significant comfort level with the use of false right-wing frames to discuss policy or criticize other progressives or Democrats, even while he misleadingly criticizes Sen. Clinton for allegedly enabling Bush and the right with her vote on Kyl-Lieberman. Yet, when criticized for his repeated use of false right-wing frames, he has responded by saying that "the notion that somehow because George Bush was trying to drum up fear in order to execute [his] agenda means that Democrats shouldn't talk about it at all I think is a mistake" and also sometimes by launching misleading attacks against his progressive critics. [Taylor Marsh has a post on what she calls "The Progressive Cannibalism of Barack Obama"]
(c) The voting records of both Sen. Obama and Sen. Clinton are very similar and much more progressive than Sen. Lieberman's. However, contrary to the false, yet common knee-jerk linkage of Sen. Clinton with Sen. Lieberman, Sen. Obama's rhetorical history has a lot more in common with his mentor Sen. Lieberman, whom he went out of the way to support prior to Ned Lamont's win in the Democratic primary - by giving a speech praising his character, intellect and qualifications, despite the fact that Sen. Lieberman was perhaps the worst triangulator against Democrats/progressives and Bush's #1 enabler on Iraq and national security in the Democratic party at the time. Post-primary, Sen. Obama supported Lamont via a letter to supporters and a donation. In contrast, Sen. Clinton offered what was tepid support for Lieberman before the primary, stating up front that she will support the eventual winner of the primary, and then went out of her way after the primary to meet with Lamont, donate funds, offer to do a fundraiser and offered one of her top campaign strategists (Howard Wolfson) as an advisor to Lamont's campaign.
In way too many of these instances, it is clear that if Sen. Clinton had acted in the same way as Sen. Obama, she would have been trashed relentlessly as a Desperate Calculating TriangulatorTM and torn to shreds by her critics (oh wait...). Sen. Obama, on the other hand, generally continues to enjoy The Progressive SaintTM status. This Clinton Double Standard is as interesting as it is appalling.
Indeed, there shouldn't even be any doubt as to who is better suited to carry on the baton of unabashed liberal Rep. Dennis Kucinich and the progressive movement than someone who is getting more support in Iowa from Independents and Republicans than from Democrats. (I wouldn't be surprised if Sen. Obama is in a similar position in New Hampshire). Considering how Sen. Obama's mentor won re-election as Senator of CT this is indeed fitting. Anyway, all of this makes it crystal clear to me what Rep. Kucinich's real values are and what his vision is on how to build the progressive movement. In hindsight, I'm just glad that I didn't take his shtick or campaign seriously.
Folks, we are at an important turning point for progressives in American history. We need to seriously think about the kind of a vision and strategy will really bring about both lasting positive change and a strong progressive movement in America. Sen. Obama's vision, when you look at its long-term impact, definitely troubles me. Let me explain why.
First, a disclosure. I came out in support of Sen. Clinton last month (with Sen. Edwards as my second choice) for the reasons outlined in this post. In my endorsement of Sen. Clinton, I also pointed out some of the reasons why I did not pick Sen. Obama:
Sen. Obama has an impressive progressive voting record, but as I have highlighted below in some detail, he has run a disappointing campaign in multiple respects and there is accumulating evidence that his campaign is dangerously unprepared and unvetted to face the Republican onslaught in the general election. His excessive focus on the politics of compromise and triangulation, his repeated skipping of controversial votes that might reveal his real positions to progressives, his unfortunate, repetitive use of false right-wing talking points to paint progressives or progressive policies in poor light, his false attacks on Sen. Clinton's character, his campaign's mimicry of the fraudulent methods used by the mainstream media to attack Al Gore in order to attack Sen. Clinton, his misleading attacks on Sen. Clinton's campaign contributions, his weakness in policy knowledge and obvious lack of breadth of experience compared to Sen. Clinton are some of the most important reasons why I do not believe he is the best Democratic candidate for President. Sen. Obama has tried to distinguish himself from Sen. Clinton by claiming he had better judgment on Iraq. This is misleading, not just because of the doubts surrounding whether he would have really voted against the 2002 Iraq resolution had he been in the U.S. Senate at the time, but also because his voting record on Iraq in the Senate is virtually identical to Sen. Clinton's voting record. Sen. Obama has tried to create a false impression that Sen. Clinton's vote for the Kyl-Lieberman resolution is effectively a vote for war against Iran. Not only did he skip the vote on this allegedly earth-changing resolution, it was a nonbinding resolution that does not legally endorse any actions by the President and contains provisions that Sen. Obama has overtly or tacitly supported at other times. Sen. Obama also tried to assert that Sen. Clinton was a liar based on her sensible position on social security. He then attacked her from the right on her sensible healthcare plan. As Prof. Paul Krugman has noted, Sen. Obama is partly on the wrong side of both issues and is damaging the cause of reform with his unfortunate rhetoric and approach. Sen. Obama also took progressives to task for criticizing Democrats who voted to install ultra-conservative Judge John Roberts as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. These are all indications to me that despite his charisma and "non-ideological" approach to politics, Sen. Obama is not the best Democratic candidate for President today, even though he is better than the Republican candidates for President.
Naturally, I fully expect that Obama supporters who read this post will likely dismiss it as not credible. Nevertheless, there is something important that needs to be said about the campaign that Sen. Obama is running because it raises significant concerns about what an Obama presidency would do to the progressive movement at large. As Dodd-supporter Turkana observed yesterday:
Obama may be running a smart horse-race strategy; but anyone who cares about the direction of the Democratic Party ought to be worried.
Turkana added in comments:
..and people rip hillary for being "dlc"- obama's running on the old dlc model!
DLC or not, let me say the following. In the 1990s, there was no real progressive movement or infrastructure to speak of, period. There were just self-centered and disorganized progressive interest groups. As Paul Krugman has hinted previously, it was much harder for a Democrat to run on an unabashedly progressive agenda during that time, when the conservative machine completely dominated politics. Since 2000, progressives finally saw the first real electoral victory at the national level in a long time when Democrats captured the U.S. House and Senate in late 2006. The progressive blogosphere has also grown since 2003 and has become more influential in the last 2 years in impacting the media narrative. However, we're still a long way away from achieving parity with the Republican Noise Machine. In other words, we have started building the foundation for a progressive movement but we have a long way to go. There is also no clear Democratic "brand" that has been established and a big chunk of the Amerian public does not identify with a Democratic "brand" as much as it identifies with a dislike for the Republican "brand".
It is therefore no exaggeration to say that, today, we are at an inflection point that could result in very different outcomes for the progressive movement going forward depending on how we react to the current set of circumstances. If we really want to move towards long-term progressive success, in my view we need leaders who don't try to win elections by repeatedly throwing progressive icons, values, or positions under the bus using the talking points of the Republican Noise Machine and the conservative movement. As I mentioned in a comment yesterday:
I am ... worried about what an Obama presidency would imply. While there is no doubt he would be better to have in office than a Republican, I sense that many Obama supporters who are willing to continuously forgive his repeated throwing of progressives under the bus using GOP talking points, don't understand that the Democratic party has not buil[t] a lasting "brand" in the eyes of Americans and you can't build that "brand" - which requires the creation of broad progressive infrastructure, vision and an aggressive defense of progressive positions - with the help of someone who frequently trashes that very "brand" using the talking points of the opposition.
If Obama wins the nomination - and if he pulls off a general election victory (which is going to be very tough for him compared to Edwards or Clinton) - it would certainly be better than having a Republican in office. However, I think it will likely have significant negative long-term consequences for the Democratic party because his Presidency will likely become a Presidency of one person - and not a Presidency [of the progressive movement] that will facilitate the reconstruction of the Democratic "brand" and progressive infrastructure which is still seriously lacking compared to the massive conservative noise machine. Given that Sen. Obama feels so comfortable trashing progressive views and progressives even before we have begun the primaries, I can only imagine how much more he would be inclined to do so during the GE and after, when he is under constant attack by Republicans.
Anyway, I will be happy if I am proved wrong, but Democrats should be thinking a lot more about about the long-term ramifications of an Obama victory.
Having watched Sen. Obama's campaign closely over the last couple of months - and his relative tone-deafness to progressive criticism and the lack of any real accountability within his campaign - I get the strong impression that Sen. Obama's campaign appears to be firstly about Sen. Obama - and secondly, and often incidentally, about the progressive movement. As much as he may have a more progressive voting record than his mentor Sen. Lieberman, his rhetoric and approach to campaigning bears striking and unmistakable similarities to those of his mentor. This is, in my view, a dangerous dynamic for progressives to endorse, especially during the Democratic primary. Like many others, I've invested vast amounts of my personal time over the years to play a small but meaningful role in helping build the credibility of the progressive blogoshere - with the hope that we will finally elect a progressive to the White House who will not Sister Souljah the progressive movement to get there. So, I'm not going to sit around and continue to pretend that Sen. Obama's approach, beliefs and strategy are acceptable just because of his progressive voting record and because he is a charismatic Democrat who may temporarily attract Republicans and Independents (before getting slaughtered by the GOP in the general election), and thereby not recognize that he is on a path that will significantly compromise the paramount goal of building the progressive movement. If he keeps up his current trajectory, my worry is that even if he manages to win the Presidency, his win might ultimately end up being a Pyrrhic victory for Democrats and the Progressive Movement - in more than one way.