Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A chill in the air

Observer at Strictly Anecdotal has up a post about “Old time politics, naivete, cynicism” - do read it. I started writing a comment in response and it grew like the proverbial mustard seed into this post.

Observer talks about how “two developments ... have made [her] feel the chill in the air.” The first development is the “Hillary forever” sites. Observer suggests - admirably, I think - that those involved in such sites consider channeling their energy into becoming a viable Third Party but finds they seem more invested in remaining unhappy and angry. The second development is Obama’s decision to skip public financing for his campaign. Although Observer understands why he made this decision, she wishes he’d been more upfront about his reasoning and seems to wish some of his supporters had called him on it.

Although Observer talks only about public campaign financing, Obama hit the trifecta of waffles this past week: public campaign financing; FISA; and NAFTA (although absolutely no one seems the slightest bit interested in talking about the last issue). There are even rumblings about a willingness to redefine “withdrawal”, as in “from Iraq”. (Perhaps a discussion about “is” looms on the horizon.) I have to admit that in a small (okay, not so small), corner of my soul I’m glad he’s proved beyond question that he is, shall we say, less than straightforward about what he’ll do. It means I can stop beating myself up for not feeling easy in my mind about voting for Obama. (“But his policies are JUST THE SAME as every other Democratic candidate’s!” “Well, they were. Once. Until about June 8.”)

First, angry Clinton supporters. In her wonderful article “Why Clinton voters say they won't support Obama”, Rebecca Traister talks about how women want to be heard and acknowledged. By not giving women an honest opportunity to air their grievances, the Democratic Party is just making everything worse. So perhaps the Clintonistas can’t move on to thinking about something like a Third Party until they accept that the party they have now is simply not going to listen to them. Unfortunately, I don’t think that will happen until the investiture of Obama at the convention. Until that moment, there’s always going to be that little, tiny ray of hope that Hillary will somehow yet triumph, that Obama will make some unrecoverable error, that the Party’s eyes will be opened and it will realize Hillary is the only true hope.

Which brings us to Observer’s second cold wind. Until a day or two ago I would have said that Hillary’s supporters’ hopes were doomed to disappointment. Watching the reaction to Obama’s position shifts, I decided there was no way Obama’s supporters would ever turn away from him, however egregious his missteps. And I could understand that simply because of the nature of much of his support.

Yes, there are rational, well-behaved Obama supporters whose support of Obama rests on “he’s not perfect but he’s the best candidate.” Supporters like that could change their minds if circumstances warranted. But an unfortunately large number of Obama supporters have committed two ritual acts that make it virtually impossible for them to deny him. First, they have invested Obama with messiah-like status: he is different, he is transformative, he is the only hope for a better future, etc., etc., etc. Thus, if they now decide he’s not really all that, they must also decide they were idiots who fell for a clever con. Very hard on the ego, so very hard to do.

Second, the Obamabot-type supporters have engaged in vicious, virulent, unconscionable attacks on Clinton. Thus, if they now decide Obama is anything less than a perfect vessel, they will have to realize they behaved disgracefully not in defense of a near god but in defense of a common or garden-variety slick politician. They’ve made their bones and the organization owns them.

As a result of these musings I had concluded that in order for Obama to alienate a majority of his supporters he would pretty much have to ax-murder someone on stage in front of a live audience with TV cameras running. And even then I figured Keith Olbermann would insist the victim deserved it because he was a Fascist; HuffPo would claim it was all a Bush-McCain plot; and Andrew Sullivan would blame it on Hillary. Somehow.

Now I’m not so sure. Yes, NAFTA is being ignored. Okay, that’s not really a hot-button topic for the New Democratic Base. Yes, campaign finance is kind of being waved off - there’s some chatter about it but basically the consensus is that Obama is being understandably pragmatic. However, there may be a little crack in the monolith - there are some attempts to justify this decision as something other than straight common sense and those attempts trip over each other a bit. They hold both that it’s vital Obama win because he’s such a perfect vessel (new politics focused on Obama’s innate goodness) and that Obama would be crazy to give up such a huge competitive advantage (old politics favoring expedience over principle). So far that conflict can be smoothed over by invoking the dreaded Republican 527s and by claiming Obama tried to negotiate with the McCain campaign over this issue. The patch is shaky, though, because it looks like Republican 527s were outspent by Democratic 527s in 2004 and because the “we tried to negotiate” line doesn’t seem to be universally accepted. (Apparently Obama was not speaking ex cathedra when his campaign made the negotiation claim.) So there’s a little, tiny fault line there. Add Hillary Clinton's big money donors to the mix and the fault could widen.

FISA seems to be a much bigger deal. This is not money; this is the Constitution. And Obama has a big-time commitment on this one: he promised to filibuster if the telecom immunity was in the final bill. Now he’s saying he can live with it? Beyond that, the FISA bill is anathema to progressives even without telecom immunity. And Obama’s invocation of a scary, scary world to justify supporting the bill sounds kind of, well, Republican. I’ve seen suggestions that campaign contributions be directed away from Obama to the DNC - an interesting if unintentional linkage between FISA and private campaign financing.

Not all Obama supporters go along with this, of course - there are those who insist no one should even criticize Obama much less penalize him financially for FISA. Even most of those supporters, though, acknowledge Obama is wrong on FISA - it’s just they believe we desperately need him as President anyhow. FISA is is a hot-button issue for the New Democratic Base and Obama is on the wrong side.

Last, but not least, if Obama continues to back off on Iraq withdrawal, that’s really, really a hot-button issue for the New Democratic Base. Based on a conversation with a friend at dinner a couple of weeks ago, some Obama supporters still believe Obama will start pulling all the American troops out of Iraq on January 21. As reality seeps in, this might be a very big issue that Obama is on the wrong side of.

Of course, one can argue that Obama is just moving to the middle in the time-honored fashion of party nominees. Like them, he figures he’s got the nomination tied up, so Democrats will just have to live with him. Or, to put it more crudely, Obama figures he’s got Democrats by the short hairs: Sure, I now support NAFTA, FISA, private campaign financing, and a somewhat leisurely withdrawal from Iraq. So what? I’m still much better than McCain.

In other words, just as the Democratic Party believes it owns women because of the Republican stand on reproductive rights, Obama believes he owns his New Democratic Base because of the Republican stand on most other issues. And he might be right. If the only choice was between him and John McCain. But is it?

The Democratic National Convention is two long months away. A little more mutation by Obama and he might start to look like a regular old politician. And if his supporters can’t make the leap from following a messiah to supporting someone from the Chicago machine, they’re going to be just as mad as the Clintonistas - and their anger will be directed at Obama. It’s possible they’ll turn to Al Gore for salvation - especially if it’s hot in Denver in August. But if they’ve wised up enough to swear off messiahs, Clinton might look darn good to them. Sure, she’s a regular old politician, too, but at least she never conned them by claiming to be anything else.


This post was based on information and ideas from the following sources:

Obama's support for the FISA "compromise" by Glen Greenwald (Do click through to the Greg Sargent article if for no other reason than to read Greenwald’s comment about the “theater” of Obama working to get amnesty out of the bill)

Shields, Brooks Discuss Obama's Fundraising Shift, McCain's Energy Proposal - PBS transcript

Barack, We Hardly Knew You! by Mark Shields

Patriot Games: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Bundlers by Ruth Marcus (via The Anchoress)

Obama: NAFTA not so bad after all by Nina Easton

Obama under fire over Iraq troop pledge by Edward Luce (via TigerHawk)

Yes, You Can (do something more than protest on the FISA Cave) by Bruce Wilder

Obama Camp: We Opted Out Of Public Financing Because McCain Won't Discuss Reining In 527s by Eric Kleefield

McCain Campaign: Obama's Public Finance Decision "All About Money" by Eric Kleefield


Observer said...

Wow, what a great, informed post. I am impressed not only by your reasoning but also by the links to other articles that helped to inform that reasoning. You have addressed so many of the points (including NAFTA) that have been annoying me but about which I have been to lazy to inform myself as one should before writing.

At this point the Obama wing of the Dems has invested far too much in Senator Obama for anything to derail his coronation. You are entirely correct in that KO, HuffPO and Andrew Sullivan would all find ways to excuse anything he might say or do. There is though a restiveness building - far too little, far too late.

The Wall Street Journal had an interesting article along these lines yesterday, Obama Tilts Toward Center, Irking Some Activists, unfortunately the WSJ doesn't allow access online to its print edition. I also got a kick out of David Brooks post in the NYT - The Two Obamas - especially considering how enamored he has been of BO (haven't figured out how to put a link in these comments yet but I will).

I am so looking forward to reading the posts before this one and the ones to follow.

Elise said...


Writing this post inspired me to go track down some of the vague stuff I'd read about, like NAFTA which got very little attention.

I sincerely hope that if Obama is elected President, the media people who are currently so indulgent don't remain so. Government needs unrelenting scrutiny, not a "well, he's a great guy so I'm sure everything he does is fine" attitude.

Obama's relationship with his activist supporters is going to be interesting. Those who are hard-core on farther-left issues are probably a small percentage of his supporters but I imagine they supply a lot of the enthusiasm. If they become disenchanted, Obama's speeches may start to sound and feel more like McCain's.

Should be an interesting 4+ months.