Saturday, September 13, 2008
Barack Obama the speechmaker is being rumbled
A British commentator says that there is a yawning gulf between what the Democratic candidate says and how he has acted. That's why the race is so close
It's funny how the harder you look at something, the harder it can be to understand it. I can't recall a US presidential election that has attracted more attention. But neither can there have been a time when the world has watched what goes on in America with the nonplussed, horrified incomprehension it has now.
Travelling in Britain this week, I've been asked repeatedly by close followers of US politics if it can really be true that Barack Obama might not win. Thoughtful people cannot get their head around the idea that Mr Obama, exciting new pilot of change, supported by Joseph Biden, experienced navigator of the swamplands of Washington politics, could possibly be defeated.
They look upon John McCain and Sarah Palin and see something out of hag-ridden history: the wizened old warrior, obsessed with finding enemies in every corner of the globe, marching in lockstep with the crackpot, mooseburger-chomping mother from the wilds of Alaska, rifle in one hand, Bible in the other, smiting caribou and conventional science as she goes.
Two patronising explanations are adduced to explain why Americans are going wrong. The first is racism. I've dealt with this before and it has acquired no more merit. White supremacists haven't been big on Democratic candidates, whatever their colour, for a long time, and Mr Obama's race is as likely to generate enthusiasm among blacks and young voters as it is hostility among racists.
In a similarly condescending account, those foolish saps are being conned into voting for Mr McCain because they like his running-mate. Her hockey-mom charm and storybook career appeals to their worst instincts. The race is boiling down to a beauty contest in which a former beauty queen is stealing the show. Believe this if it helps you come to terms with the possibility of a Democratic defeat. But there really are better explanations.
One is a simple political-cultural one. This election is a struggle between the followers of American exceptionalism and the supporters of global universalism. Democrats are more eager than ever to align the US with the rest of the Western world, especially Europe. This is true not just in terms of a commitment to multilateral diplomacy that would restore the United Nations to its rightful place as arbiter of international justice. It is also reflected in the type of place they'd like America to be - a country with higher taxes, more business regulation, a much larger welfare safety net and universal health insurance. The Republicans, who still believe America should follow the beat of its own drum, are pretty much against all of that.
You can argue the merits of each case. But let me try to explain to my fellow non-Americans why Mr Obama's problems go well beyond that. Even if you think that Americans should want to turn their country into a European-style system, there is a perfectly good reason that you might have grave doubts about Mr Obama.
The essential problem coming to light is a profound disconnect between the Barack Obama of the candidate's speeches, and the Barack Obama who has actually been in politics for the past decade or so. Speechmaker Obama has built his campaign on the promise of reform, the need to change the culture of American political life, to take on the special interests that undermine government's effectiveness and erode trust in the system itself.
Politician Obama rose through a Chicago machine that is notoriously the most corrupt in the country. As David Freddoso writes in a brilliantly cogent and measured book, The Case Against Barack Obama, the angel of deliverance from the old politics functioned like an old-time Democratic pol in Illinois. He refused repeatedly to side with those lonely voices that sought to challenge the old corrupt ways of the ruling party.
Speechmaker Obama talks about an era of bipartisanship, He speaks powerfully about the destructive politics of red and blue states. Politician Obama has toed his party's line more reliably than almost any other Democrat in US politics. He has a near-perfect record of voting with his side. He has the most solidly left-wing voting history in the Senate. His one act of bipartisanship, a transparency bill co-sponsored with a Republican senator, was backed by everybody on both sides of the aisle. He has never challenged his party's line on any issue of substance.
Speechmaker Obama talks a lot about finding ways to move beyond the bloody battlegrounds of the "culture wars" in America; the urgent need to establish consensus on the emotive issue of abortion. Politician Obama's support for abortion rights is the most extreme of any Democratic senator. In the Illinois legislature he refused to join Democrats and Republicans in supporting a Bill that would require doctors to provide medical care for babies who survived abortions. No one in the Senate - not the arch feminist Hillary Clinton nor the superliberal Edward Kennedy - opposed this same humane measure.
Here's the real problem with Mr Obama: the jarring gap between his promises of change and his status quo performance. There are just too many contradictions between the eloquent poetry of the man's stirring rhetoric and the dull, familiar prose of his political record.
It's been remarked that the biggest difference between Americans and Europeans is religion: ignorant Americans cling to faith; enlightened Europeans long ago embraced the liberating power of reason. Yet here's an odd thing about this election. Europeans are asking Americans to take a leap of faith, to break the chains of empiricism and embrace the possibility of the imagination.
The fact is that a vote for Mr Obama demands uncritical subservience to the irrational, anti-empirical proposition that the past holds no clues about the future, that promise is wholly detached from experience. The second-greatest story ever told, perhaps.
An Obama ad plays fast and loose with McCain's voting record on education and proposals
A new Obama-Biden ad includes misleading claims about McCain and education spending:
It says McCain "voted to cut education funding" and lists five votes. But one was a vote for increased education funding, although for fewer dollars than what Democrats may have wanted. And three others were votes against additional funding, not votes for funding cuts.
The ad says that "McCain's economic plan gives $200 billion more to special interests while taking money away from public schools." Not exactly. McCain has proposed a one-year freeze on discretionary spending in general. A freeze would mean that funds would not keep pace with inflation and population growth, but no dollars would be "taken away." The $200 billion for "special interests" refers to the cost of McCain's proposal to reduce the tax rate for all business corporations, not just a few "special" ones.
The ad says McCain proposed abolishing the Department of Education. He did once say in an interview that he "would certainly favor" abolishing both the departments of Education and Energy, but he hasn't pushed for either.
Much more here
Then there was someone named Carol Fowler, who evidentially runs the Democratic Party in South Carolina, opining that Sarah Palin's "primary qualification seems to be that she hasn't had an abortion." For a party trying to appeal suburban women (who according to the most recent Washington Post poll are leaving Obama in droves) I'm not sure Ms.Fowler is going to bring them under the tent. That's a nine on the Biden gaffe-o-meter. She later apologized for the remark, but it owned most of the news cycle today.
But credit Obama for the dumbest play of the day. Evidentially, during a taping with Letterman, he elaborated on his "lipstick on a pig" remark by commenting that Palin was meant to be the lipstick, and McCain's policies the pig. What on earth was he thinking? All he did was extend a bad news cycle for him for another 24 hours, and it's another day where McCain gets a free pass. Truth be told, McCain is the only candidate among the four that looks completely presidential.
It's baffling to see Obama continue to spend energy going after Palin while McCain floats above it all. The news cycle can only handle one or two headlines at a given time, and when candidates go off message it's the "off message" part that owns the coverage. I expected Biden to be off message almost all the time -- he's too long winded and arrogant to do otherwise -- but Obama had been good at staying on message. Not any longer. This Palin thing has really thrown team Obama off their game.
The Foreign Policy Difference
By FOUAD AJAMI
The candidacy of Barack Obama seems to have lost some of its luster of late, and I suspect this has something to do with large questions many Americans still harbor about his view of the dangerous world around us. Those questions were not stilled by the choice of Joe Biden as his running mate.
To be sure, the Delaware senator is a man of unfailing decency and deep legislative experience; and his foreign policy preferences are reflective of the liberal internationalist outlook that once prevailed in the Democratic Party. To his honor and good name, Sen. Biden took a leading role in pushing for the use of American military power in the Balkans when the Muslims of Bosnia were faced with grave dangers a dozen years ago. Patriotism does not embarrass this man in the way it does so many in the liberal elite. But as Bob Woodward is the latest to remind us, it is presidents, not their understudies, who shape the destiny of nations.
So the Obama candidacy must be judged on its own merits, and it can be reckoned as the sharpest break yet with the national consensus over American foreign policy after World War II. This is not only a matter of Sen. Obama's own sensibility; the break with the consensus over American exceptionalism and America's claims and burdens abroad is the choice of the activists and elites of the Democratic Party who propelled Mr. Obama's rise.
Though the staging in Denver was the obligatory attempt to present the Obama Democrats as men and women of the political center, the Illinois senator and his devotees are disaffected with American power. In their view, we can make our way in the world without the encumbrance of "hard" power. We would offer other nations apologies for the way we carried ourselves in the aftermath of 9/11, and the foreign world would be glad for a reprieve from the time of American certitude.
The starkness of the choice now before the country is fully understood when compared to that other allegedly seminal election of 1960. But the legend of Camelot and of the New Frontier exaggerates the differences between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy. A bare difference of four years separated the two men (Nixon had been born in 1913, Kennedy in 1917). Both men had seen service in the Navy in World War II. Both were avowed Cold Warriors. After all, Kennedy had campaigned on the missile gap -- in other words the challenger had promised a tougher stance against the Soviet Union. (Never mind the irony: There was a missile gap; the U.S. had 2,000 missiles, the Soviet Union a mere 67.)
The national consensus on America's role abroad, and on the great threats facing it, was firmly implanted. No great cultural gaps had opened in it, arugula was not on the menu, and the elites partook of the dominant culture of the land; the universities were then at one with the dominant national ethos. The "disuniting of America" was years away. American liberalism was still unabashedly tethered to American nationalism.
We are at a great remove from that time and place. Globalization worked its way through the land, postmodernism took hold of the country's intellectual life. The belief in America's "differentness" began to give way, and American liberalism set itself free from the call of nationalism. American identity itself began to mutate.
The celebrated political scientist Samuel Huntington, in "Who Are We?," a controversial book that took up this delicate question of American identity, put forth three big conceptions of America: national, imperial and cosmopolitan. In the first, America remains America. In the second, America remakes the world. In the third, the world remakes America. Back and forth, America oscillated between the nationalist and imperial callings. The standoff between these two ideas now yields to the strength and the claims of cosmopolitanism. It is out of this new conception of America that the Obama phenomenon emerges.
The "aloofness" of Mr. Obama that has become part of the commentary about him is born of this cultural matrix. Mr. Obama did not misspeak when he described union households and poorer Americans as people clinging to their guns and religion; he was overheard sharing these thoughts with a like-minded audience in San Francisco.
Nor was it an accident that, in a speech at Wesleyan University, he spoke of public service but excluded service in the military. The military does not figure prominently in his world and that of his peers. In his acceptance speech at the Democratic Party convention, as was the case on the campaign trail, he spoke of his maternal grandfather's service in Patton's army. But that experience had not been part of his own upbringing. When we elect a president, we elect a commander in chief. This remains an imperial republic with military obligations and a military calling. That is why Eisenhower overwhelmed Stevenson, Reagan's swagger swept Carter out of office, Bush senior defeated Dukakis, etc.
The exception was Bill Clinton, with his twin victories over two veterans of World War II. We had taken a holiday from history -- but 9/11 awakened us to history's complications. Is it any wonder that Hillary Clinton feigned the posture of a muscular American warrior, and carried the working class with her?
The warrior's garb sits uneasily on Barack Obama's shoulders: Mr. Obama seeks to reassure Americans that he and his supporters are heirs of Roosevelt and Kennedy; that he, too, could order soldiers to war, stand up to autocracies and rogue regimes. But the widespread skepticism about his ability to do so is warranted.
The crowds in Berlin and Paris that took to him knew their man. He had once presented his willingness to negotiate with Iran as the mark of his diplomacy, the break with the Bush years and the Bush style. But he stepped back from that pledge, and in a blatant echo of President Bush's mantra on Iran, he was to say that "no options would be off the table" when dealing with Iran. The change came on a visit to Israel, the conversion transparent and not particularly convincing.
Mr. Obama truly believes that he can offer the world beyond America's shores his biography, his sympathies with strangers. In the great debate over anti-Americanism and its sources, the two candidates couldn't be more different. Mr. Obama proceeds from the notion of American guilt: We called up the furies, he believes. Our war on terror and our war in Iraq triggered more animus. He proposes to repair for that, and offers himself (again, the biography) as a bridge to the world.
Mr. McCain, well, he's not particularly articulate on this question. But he shares the widespread attitude of broad swaths of the country that are not consumed with worries about America's standing in foreign lands. Mr. McCain is not eager to be loved by foreigners. In November, the country will have a choice between a Republican candidate forged in the verities of the 1950s, and a Democratic rival who walks out of the 1990s.
For Mr. McCain, the race seems a matter of duty and obligation. He is a man taking up this quest after a life of military and public service, the presidency as a capstone of a long career. Mr. McCain could speak with more nuance about the great issues upon us. When it comes to the Islamic world, for example, it's not enough merely to evoke the threat of radical Islamism as the pre-eminent security challenge of our time. But his approach and demeanor have proven their electoral appeal before.
For Mr. Obama, the race is about the claims of modernism. There is "cool," and the confidence of the meritocracy in him. The Obama way is glib: It glides over the world without really taking it in. It has to it that fluency with political and economic matters that can be acquired in a hurry, an impatience with great moral and political complications. The lightning overseas trip, the quick briefing, and above all a breezy knowingness. Mr. Obama's way is the way of his peers among the liberal, professional elite.
Once every four years, ordinary Americans go out and choose the standard-bearer of their nationalism. Liberalism has run away with elite culture. Nationalism may be out of fashion in Silicon Valley. But the state -- and its citadel, the presidency -- is an altogether different calling.
Autumn Angst: Dems fret about Obama
Polls showing John McCain tied or even ahead of Barack Obama are stirring angst and second-guessing among some of the Democratic Party's most experienced operatives, who worry that Obama squandered opportunities over the summer and may still be underestimating his challenges this fall. "It's more than an increased anxiety," said Doug Schoen, who worked as one of Bill Clinton's lead pollsters during his 1996 reelection and has worked for both Democrats and independents in recent years. "It's a palpable frustration. Deep-seated unease in the sense that the message has gotten away from them."
Joe Trippi, a consultant behind Howard Dean's flash-in-the-pan presidential campaign in 2004 and John Edwards' race in 2008, said the Obama campaign was slow to recognize how the selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as McCain's running mate would change the dynamic of the race. "They were set up to run `experience versus change,' what they had run [against Hillary] Clinton," Trippi said. "And I think Palin clearly moved that to be change [and] reform, versus change. They are adjusting to that and that threw them off balance a little bit."
A major Democratic fundraiser described it a good bit more starkly after digesting the polls of recent days: "I'm so depressed. It's happening again. It's a nightmare."
Adding to Democratic restlessness, McCain has largely neutralized some issue advantages that have long favored Democrats. This week's USA Today/Gallup poll reported a split on which candidate "can better handle the economy"; 48 percent chose Obama while 45 percent said McCain. In late August, Obama had a 16-point edge on the issue. Also this week, an ABC News/Washington Post poll reported that when voters are asked "who can bring about needed change to Washington," McCain still trails Obama by 12 points. But in June, McCain trailed by 32 points.
That shift in the public's perception of the issues, in Democratic pollster Celinda Lake's words, "tremendously concerns me." Lake joined other Democratic veterans, some speaking not for attribution, in emphasizing a classic liberal woe: that the Democrat let the Republican define him. "Obama needed to define himself," Lake said. "I do think that during the Democratic convention we should have done a better job of defining McCain."
Steve Rosenthal, a veteran field organizer for Democrats and organized labor, said that some entrenched Democratic vulnerabilities never receded this year. And in his view, Palin has reawakened those liberal weaknesses. "For some white, working-class voters who don't want to vote for Barack Obama but weren't sure about McCain, Palin gave them a good reason to take another look and consider supporting McCain," Rosenthal said. "On the one hand, it could be a temporary reshuffling of the deck," he added. "And on the other hand, it underscores the deep-seated problems we have in this race with race, class and culture.
Obama Pitches Immigration Policy
Barack Obama spoke on Wednesday night about a subject that often gets short shrift on the 2008 campaign trail: immigration. The Democratic candidate made the speech to a crowd of Hispanic leaders at black-tie dinner capping the end of a Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute gathering in Washington. After spending a few minutes talking about his opponent and his other policy proposals, Obama got his loudest cheers with these lines: "This election is about the 12 million people living in the shadows, the communities taking immigration enforcement into their own hand. They are counting on us to stop the hateful rhetoric filling our airwaves, and rise above the fear, and rise above the demagoguery, and finally enact comprehensive immigration reform."
Obama complimented John McCain for championing the comprehensive immigration package that died in the Senate last year - and that helped (temporarily) sink his primary campaign. The bill, which would have created a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, inflamed widespread anti-immigration sentiment. Congress was deluged with calls, emails and faxes expressing opposition.
Since then, most politicians have kept the issue out of the spotlight. McCain has even made a pledge to tackle border security before any other changes - a reversal Obama made sure to point out Wednesday. "Well, I don't know about you, but I think it's time for a president who won't walk away from comprehensive immigration reform when it becomes politically unpopular," he said.
Obama makes frequent mention of his healthcare and energy proposals on the stump, and his aides have said those will be the top priorities in the first year of his administration. A deal on immigration could still be elusive even with bigger Democratic majorities in Congress, given the success of Republican opponents who stopped two previous attempts to get the bill past the Senate in the summer of 2007. Those proposals had the support of President George W. Bush.
Obama pointed out that the Republican Party platform didn't include language on a comprehensive immigration deal, saying McCain didn't "stand up to opponents of reform at his own convention."
The McCain campaign took the unorthodox approach of not forcing his positions into the party's platform this year, but his campaign did make an effort to block one new proposal regarding immigration: a plan to deny U.S. citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants.
Obama ended his speech with the words "si se puede," the Spanish version of his campaign chant "yes we can." His words were not so much a translation as much as a return to a native tongue - the phrase was used widely in Spanish before Obama adopted it, most often for protest marches and demonstrations.
(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, EYE ON BRITAIN and Paralipomena . For readers in China or for when blogger.com is playing up, there is a mirror of this site here. My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here.)