Saturday, July 12, 2008
Obama has been here before
The election this year is between two very different political personalities. John McCain is a moderate conservative and war hero with a solid political record but limited media skills (he still has trouble using a teleprompter) and no excess of charisma. Barack Obama is a young, very charismatic newcomer with virtually no political record but great oratorical talent who promises profound change.
This is very reminiscent of the election of 1896, when William McKinley ran against William Jennings Bryan. McKinley too was a genuine war hero (distinguished service in the Civil War) who then entered politics. He served several terms in the House and became chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. In 1891 he was elected governor of Ohio.
His opponent's political resume was a lot thinner, with only two back-bencher terms in the House. But at the Democratic convention of 1896, Bryan electrified the crowd with his "Cross of Gold" speech. It instantly became an American classic and propelled him to the nomination at just 36 years old, by far the youngest man ever nominated by a major party. Like Mr. Obama, Bryan promised a new politics aimed to benefit the common man, not the capitalists.
He launched the country's first whistle-stop campaign, giving more than 500 speeches around the country. And at first it worked. The Dow Jones Industrial Average, which had made its debut on May 26 of that year at 40.94, had lost 30% by August, when it stood at 28.48. But the Republicans fought back, utilizing new advertising techniques, and painted Bryan as someone whose populist ideas would wreck the American economy. The Dow began to recover as McKinley picked up support in northern industrial cities, and among ethnic workers who had been previously Democratic. In the end he won with 51% of the popular vote against 47%.
So 1896 turned out to be a watershed election, alright. By rejecting the candidate who advocated change for the candidate who promised moderate conservatism, it made the Republicans the dominant party until 1932.
Obama's GOP models
By KARL ROVE
For a campaign that says it wants to end the politics of the Bush-Cheney years, the Obama for President effort has cribbed an awful lot from the Bush-Cheney playbooks of 2000 and 2004. For starters, Barack Obama's manager admitted to the New York Times that he wanted an "army of persuasion" modeled explicitly on the massive Bush neighbor-to-neighbor "Victory Committee" of '00 and '04. Those efforts deployed millions of volunteers to register, persuade and get-out-the-vote.
Sen. Obama's organizational emphasis wisely avoids the Democratic mistake of 2000, when Donna Brazille's plea for a stronger grassroots focus was ignored by the Gore high command. It also avoids the mistake of 2004, when Democrats outsourced their ground game to George Soros's 527 organizations. The latter effort paid at least $76 million to more than 45,000 canvassers - many hired from temp agencies - to register and turn out voters. It was the wrong model: Undecideds are more likely to be influenced by those in their social network than an anonymous, low-wage campaign worker.
Like Mr. Bush, Mr. Obama has harnessed the Internet for persuasion, communication and self-directed organization. A Bush campaign secret weapon in 2004 was nearly 7.5 million email addresses of supporters, 1.5 million of them volunteers. Some volunteers ran "virtual precincts," using the Web to register, persuade and organize family and friends around the country. Technology has opened even more possibilities for Mr. Obama today.
The Obama campaign is trying to catch up with the GOP's "microtargeting" program, which uses powerful analytical tools and extensive household consumer information to focus on prospects for conversion and extra turnout help. Another Obama adaptation of a 2004 Bush campaign technique is a stepped-up, rapid response effort. Charges do not go unanswered, the campaign stays relentlessly on the offense, using every channel of communication.
The Obama campaign has also copied the Bush strategy of broadening the general election map. In 2000, the Bush effort targeted not just the traditional battlegrounds, but also West Virginia (last won by the GOP in an open race for the presidency in 1928), Tennessee (Al Gore's home), Arkansas (Bill Clinton's home), Washington and Oregon.
Hoping for a breakthrough somewhere, Mr. Obama also wants to force John McCain to play defense. So in addition to traditional battleground states, he's running TV ads and organizing in Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, South Carolina, Indiana, Nebraska, Montana, Alaska and North Dakota. And where Mr. Bush targeted Latinos, African-Americans, Jews, Catholics and education voters to narrow Democratic margins, Mr. Obama is going after evangelicals, veterans and values voters with ads and outreach to trim the GOP's margin.
There are problems, however. Mr. Obama's people admit they want to sucker Mr. McCain into spending money. To be successful, a bluff must be credible. In places like Nebraska and North Dakota, Mr. Obama can't rely on local issues - like Mr. Bush did with coal in West Virginia in 2000 - to unexpectedly win a critical state. Organization alone won't suffice. And putting Obama dollars into Texas, for example, to help win five state House seats may simply cause Texan Republicans - not Mr. McCain - to raise money and work harder to counter.
Democrats don't have the same large volunteer pool the GOP does with its Federated GOP Women, College and Young Republicans, and local party committees. In the primaries, Mr. Obama instead moved hordes of volunteers from state to state. It was a brilliant tactic, but Nov. 4 is different. The volunteers adequate for primaries held over five months will simply not be enough to compete in 51 separate elections (all 50 states plus the District of Columbia) all on one day.
Mr. Obama's biggest problem is that when it comes to substance, he's following the playbook of a Republican other than George W. Bush. In 2000, Mr. Bush won the general election on the same themes and positions as in the primaries, including compassionate conservatism, the faith-based initiative, tax cuts and Social Security reform. There was no repudiation of past positions, no chameleon-like shifts in positions.
Instead of consistency, Mr. Obama has followed Richard Nixon's advice, to cater to his party's extreme in the primaries and then move aggressively to the middle for the fall.
In the primary, Mr. Obama supported pulling out of Iraq within 16 months, called the D.C. gun ban constitutional, backed the subjection of telecom companies to expensive lawsuits for cooperating in the terror surveillance program, opposed welfare reform, pledged to renegotiate Nafta, disavowed free trade and was strongly against the death penalty in all cases. But in the past few weeks, Mr. Obama has reversed course on all of these, discarding fringe liberal views for relentlessly centrist positions. He also flip-flopped on accepting public financing and condemning negative ads from third party groups, like unions.
By taking Nixon's advice, Mr. Obama is assuming such dramatic reversals will somehow avoid voter scrutiny. But people are watching closely, and by setting a world indoor record for jettisoning past positions, Mr. Obama may be risking his reputation for truthfulness. A candidate's credibility, once lost, is very hard to restore, regardless of how fine an organization he has built.
Will Obama give power to the '60s Left?
How perfect it was that while running for president in 2008, the 40th anniversary of "1968," Barack Obama should denounce the 1960s. His candidacy and his times are bland compared to what was happening then, or so everyone thought. The year 1968 had a torrent of cataclysmic political events, each of which might have destabilized any other year.
We just passed Robert Kennedy's assassination, and before that the Paris student riots in May 1968. Up next month, the Democratic convention in Chicago - with its pitched battles in Grant Park between the cops and antiwar demonstrators, the anti-Vietnam protests inside the hall, Mayor Richard Daley on home TVs screaming hysterically at Sen. Abraham Ribicoff.
Thus spake Sen. Barack Obama, b. 1961: "There is no doubt that we represent the kind of change that Sen. Clinton cannot deliver on. And part of it is generational. Sen. Clinton and others, they have been fighting some of the same fights since the '60s. And it makes it very difficult for them to bring the country together to get things done."
Sen. Clinton "and others" would include House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, various Senate and House Committee chairmen, DNC Chairman Howard Dean, and much of the Congressional Black Caucus whose political formation started and stopped in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Insofar as many of the people running Sen. Obama's own party have spent the past four decades playing the Hatfields to the conservative McCoys, can one truly say he has freed himself from those times? As someone might have said back then, sort of.
A phrase born in the '70s out of the feminist movement held that "the personal is political." As an epigram for the age, she got that right. Back then, it seemed to make sense. Neither Barack Obama nor others of his generation can fathom the fantastic emotional intensity of 1968. It was a year submerged in physical and emotional violence. After the Martin Luther King assassination in April, many American cities erupted in violence and arson, most notably Washington, D.C. The smash-face antiwar movement screamed alongside.
For the then-young men and women of the liberal left, politics became, and remained, unapologetically personal. The falling away of restraint on personal behavior required that the new ethos had to be codified by politics and the courts. Fighting for the right to hang erotic art in a Cincinnati museum became their idea of crucial struggle. Their counterparts on the right were appalled. The point is that for both sides, 1968 was a political furnace; it forged belief systems that drive many in politics today, especially Democrats.
Hillary Clinton came out of this intensely fought milieu. Barack Obama did not. When Obama criticized the fights born back in the '60s, he was severing the personal from the political. He is personally very different from these people. (I wouldn't say this about Michelle Obama.)
What has struck me most about Obama's personality is that it conveys nearly no sense of irony. Hillary in stump speeches would respond to applause for her tales of woe by bobbing her head and forming her mouth into a knowing smirk. Obama doesn't do "knowingness." He's earnest and emotionally quiet. Making un-ironic earnestness seem charismatic is hard, but he's doing it.
His recent flip-flops on guns, the death penalty and Iraq suggest he is less inclined to belief-based '60s style activism than to pragmatic opportunism. The old school wanted to triumph. He wants to succeed.
The Democratic bloggers, truly a tribe descended from 1968, hate Obama's easeful flexibility. But it explains in part how he is slipping by with a standard liberal policy-set no one seems to notice. A lot of moderate Democrats and younger voters, who consider themselves mainly achievers rather than activists, are OK with this. They would rather vote for a flexible opportunist than a committed man of the left. So that's what they're getting.
If he wins, though, the country would have a president who lacks personal and political clarity. This would give the politics of hope new meaning. What precisely do voters think they're getting? You don't have to wait for an answer. It will be supplied in January by Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, the House caucus and many others who turned professional after the '60s and know what to do with a big governing majority in Congress.
For Democrats who think 1968 was yesterday, the next four look good: Obama's personality produces a win (proving the personal remains political), and the win produces traditional party goals on universal health insurance, tax levels and, not least, the more modest American footprint in the world they have sought since the charismatic Jack Kennedy got the country into Vietnam. Looks like the sunshine [for the '60s Left] may be coming back.
Some REAL centrist ideas for Obama
Some liberals fret that Barack Obama is tacking to the center after his acquiescence to the Supreme Court's repeal of Washington's handgun law, his shift on telephone company immunity for cooperating with wiretaps, and his call for more faith-based social programs. But this is just the beginning. The logic of the race will shortly lead Sen. Obama to buck bigger liberal pieties on core priorities like schools, taxes and health care in order to win.
In a sense this is overdue. For all the talk about reaching out to Republicans and independents, Mr. Obama's proposals have been far less challenging to conventional liberal thinking than were Bill Clinton's in 1992 -- when Mr. Clinton forced Democrats to overhaul their approach to such central issues as welfare, trade and crime. Mr. Obama's true audacity (and accomplishment) thus far has been to rebrand liberal goals on health care and economic security as "common sense" reforms behind which all Americans can unite.
You can't criticize Mr. Obama for not taking on antique Democratic thinking when it turned out he could win his party's nod without having to. That's just smart politics. But it won't work any longer.
As the general election takes shape, Mr. Obama now faces the one line of attack he didn't have to deal with in his long battle with Hillary Clinton: the charge that he is an extreme liberal whose tax-and-spend instincts will put America on the road to socialism. This drumbeat is already being sounded by conservative commentators who note the gap between the candidate's post-partisan rhetoric and what they dub his "redistributionist" agenda. It will become a roar from the McCain camp that Mr. Obama must silence if he's to sustain his broad appeal.
If the "too liberal" label sticks, Mr. Obama won't win. And if he doesn't demonstrate his openness to more ideologically androgynous means to achieve his goals, he won't be able to govern.
That means Mr. Obama needs three biggish ideas he can punch back with as the charges crescendo. "John McCain would have you believe I'm practically a socialist," Mr. Obama needs to be able to say with a laugh. "Well, ask yourselves this: Is a typical liberal for x, y and z?" These three proposals need to be so self-evidently a break with conventional liberal thinking and interest groups that it will instantly trump the GOP charge in the press, as well as in the eyes of independent voters and open-minded Republicans. Think of them as the policy equivalents of what Bill Clinton did when he distanced himself from the ugly racial animus of hip-hop artist Sister Souljah in 1992. So what should Obama's three "Sister Souljahs" on policy be? Here are my candidates:
- A new deal for teachers. Mr. Obama knows we need to attract a new generation of teachers to the nation's poorest schools, which today recruit from the bottom third of the college class. While money isn't the only answer (prestige and working conditions also matter greatly), even conservatives admit we'll never lure the talent we need unless the earnings trajectory for teachers in high poverty schools goes well beyond today's average starting wage of around $40,000, peaking after 20 years near $80,000. But we don't need to raise teacher salaries across the board -- it's the specialties (like math and science) and the toughest neighborhoods that face real crises.
Mr. Obama should therefore go beyond vague talk of modest pay reform and offer a bold new "grand bargain" to reshape the profession. He should make a $30 billion pot of federal money available to states and districts to boost salaries in poor schools, provided the teachers unions make two key concessions. First, they have to scrap their traditional "lockstep" pay scale. In this scheme, a physics grad has to be paid the same as a phys-ed major if both have the same tenure in the classroom, and a teacher whose students make remarkable gains each year gets rewarded no differently than one whose students languish. Second, it has to be easy to fire the awful teachers that are blighting the lives of a million poor children.
The unions will scream. But college students and younger teachers will crave the chance to earn, say, $150,000 if they excel. And smart union leaders know that something like this money-for-reform deal is the only way the public will ever invest to bolster teaching. Mr. Obama mentioned the idea of merit pay once a year ago. But the union blowback was so great that he didn't broach the subject again until a few days ago in an address to the National Education Association, when (to his credit) he stood his ground and faced some boos from his union audience as a result.
But now that he's dipped his toe in, he can capture the public's imagination by aiming much higher. He can explicitly endorse something like the breakthrough deal being pushed by Washington, D.C., schools chief Michelle Rhee, under which teachers could opt into a new pay schedule that gives them a chance to earn up to $130,000, but requires them to relinquish tenure and seniority rights as part of the bargain. A fresh Obama call for such "market-based pay" to elevate the status of teaching would be a common-sense, cost-effective way to get the teachers we need to the kids who need them most.
- Lower corporate taxes. Corporate tax rates in the U.S. are the second highest among developed countries. Democrats act as if these taxes are somehow a "freebie," paid by impersonal entities. But "corporations" don't pay taxes, people do. These taxes are ultimately borne by shareholders or employees. And corporate taxes help determine where multinational firms choose to locate, decisions that should be a major concern of policy makers who want to keep good jobs in the U.S. Mr. Obama has hinted he'd "consider" lowering corporate taxes at some point. Better now to say he'll make it a priority (tied to closing corporate loopholes and broadening the base) and parry liberal moans by explaining how high corporate taxes hurt American workers.
- Health savings accounts "done right." Liberals sensibly reject "consumer-directed health plans" loved by Republicans when these plans' high co-pays and deductibles put undue burdens on the sick and the poor. But there's a simple way to structure such plans to address these concerns while still bringing consumer incentives to bear on runaway health costs. The answer is to require such plans to limit the total medical costs a person can incur in a year to a reasonable percentage of income. By calling for annual out-of-pocket maximums to be tied explicitly to earnings, Mr. Obama would forge a new "third way" on health care, and cast himself as an innovator not beholden to the far left view that market forces should play no role in health care at all.
Mr. Obama likes to say, "We need a president who tells you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear." But as a candidate he's rarely made good on this pledge. By embracing this trio of common-sense ideas that will nonetheless raise hackles among his liberal supporters, Mr. Obama can go a long way toward slipping the lefty label that could sink him.
Obama The Blur
At his current pace, Barack Obama is going to give Bill Clinton a run for his reputation as a political shape-shifter. Witness his performance this week in the Senate on foreign intelligence surveillance. He voted to gut the bill before he voted to pass it.
For two weeks, Mr. Obama has been taking flak from his left flank for declaring his support for executive branch eavesdropping on terrorists overseas. During the primaries, Mr. Obama had promised to join a filibuster to kill it. But, lo, as the general election beckoned, he saw the light of Presidential power shine upon him and decided not to give John McCain an opening to call him soft on national security.
But this week's Senate debate also featured three amendments that would have weakened or gutted the bipartisan compromise. Mr. Obama voted for all three. The worst, sponsored by Chris Dodd, would have gone so far as to strip immunity for the telecom companies that assisted the government after 9/11. Without immunity, the companies won't cooperate lest they get sued by the ACLU ad infinitum, putting U.S. security seriously at risk. Yet Mr. Obama was one of only 32 Senators who voted for this killer amendment.
Mr. Obama did vote for final passage, which prevailed 69-28, though no thanks to the Illinois Senator who will benefit most from the legislation if he wins in November. This is one more gift from President Bush to his successor, who won't have to spend political capital beating off the anti-antiterror left to protect this war-fighting ability.
Mr. Obama's both for-it and against-it pose raises the issue of what he really believes. Perhaps in voting for the killer amendments, he was trying to appease the left while knowing he'd pay no political price because the amendments would fail. But this hyper-triangulation hardly inspires confidence in a potential President, who doesn't have the luxury of being on both sides of every issue. Most Presidential campaigns put a candidate in sharper focus as they unfold. Since he's locked down the nomination, Mr. Obama has become the candidate who blurs.
Obama's Poor English Lesson
Barack Obama has questioned, implicitly, the value of English as a primary language. Why shouldn't the rest of us learn to speak Spanish? What is so "special" about English? Pandering to Hispanic voters is at the heart of this latest swerve in Obama's insubstantial campaign, but picking on English is a very silly and very dangerous tactic towards a vital national and international issue.
Obama himself is the best argument for a black in America learning to master English. The candidate speaks English perfectly and that has made him the first viable black presidential candidate. If he spoke English like most inner city blacks, then -- unfairly perhaps -- millions of whites would have privately dismissed him as not up to the job of president. It is profoundly selfish of him to profit from his excellent English, and then to suggest that young Hispanics and other immigrants who have difficulty with English remain in their linguistic ghetto.
What should Obama be saying instead? How about something like this: "I was blessed to be raised in a home in which good English in a vernacular easily understood was normal. My ability to communicate in English well was not something that I had to work had to achieve, but it was something that opened many doors to me that would otherwise be closed to a young black man. If you want to succeed in America, just as Italians, Japanese, Jews, Greeks and so many other minorities have done, master English."
Obama is also dead wrong in pretending that English is "just another language" and that insisting Americans speak, read and write English is some sort of ethnic bias. English, instead, is the great unifier of mankind. Three of the eight members of the G8 -- America, Britain and Canada -- are English-speaking. India, the largest democracy in the world, uses English as its principal administrative language. Australia, which along with India is set to be one of the next nations admitted to the G8 group, is English-speaking too.
Pakistan, a tinderbox in the world today, uses English as a principal administrative language. Zimbabwe, another serious trouble spot, has a large number of English-speaking citizens. Nations like Malaysia and Nigeria, which sit on important religious and political rifts in our world, have large numbers of people who are English-speakers. Hong Kong, which is a crucial link between China and America, has millions of English-speakers.
In places from Belize to Bangladesh, from Singapore to South Africa, English is an important language and, in many cases, the most important language. Bismarck once said that the most important political fact of the 19th Century was that the British and the Americans spoke the same language. Nothing has made that observation less valid today. Understanding English is so important that hundreds of millions of people who do not live in English-speaking lands have learned English. Even our old enemy, the now dead Soviet Union, made English compulsory. This was not out of love for America "the main enemy," but because a grasp of English was such a priceless asset.
English is not just like any other language, any more than Latin in 1000 C.E. was "just another language." Anyone who wanted to seriously study anything, to exercise influence anywhere, or to advance professionally or commercially needed to know Latin even more than he knew the tongue of the land in which he lived. Because everyone who was anyone read and spoke Latin, Copernicus, a Pole, could give lectures in Italian universities. Doctors and lawyers today are seriously handicapped if they are completely ignorant of Latin. That is how strong the tug of dominant languages is across history.
English is like Latin. It is the means of mutual understanding, the vehicle of clear communication, the tool of study and research. Pilots of Chinese airliners landing in Tasjkent must speak English to the air traffic controllers: it is the universal language of modernity.
If Obama does not know these things, then he is too ignorant to safely sit in the Oval Office. If Obama knows these things, but prefers to dissemble, then he is worse than simply a political liar: He is a political liar whose lies, he knows, ruin people's lives.
(For more postings from me, see DISSECTING LEFTISM, TONGUE-TIED, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, GREENIE WATCH, POLITICAL CORRECTNESS WATCH, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCH, SOCIALIZED MEDICINE, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL and EYE ON BRITAIN. My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here.)