Friday, October 31, 2008

Missing the point

There has been a lot of chatter about what Barack Obama is really saying in that January 2001 radio show about “The Court and Civil Rights.” I think most of the chatterers - on both the Right and the Left - are missing the point. Unsurprisingly, the Left is understating how much the show reveals about the continuity of Obama’s commitment to spreading the wealth. I do not necessarily consider this deliberate. If you believe that Obama is a mainstream, moderate, liberal politician, it is quite easy to make the case that what he says in that radio show isn’t terribly significant. Equally unsurprisingly, the Right is overstating how much the radio show reveals about Obama’s commitment to spreading the wealth. More troublesomely, the Right is misstating - and I suspect misunderstanding - what the radio show actually does reveal.

The Right’s general argument has been that Obama wants to use the Supreme Court in particular and courts in general to redistribute wealth and that his comments in the radio show reveal his disappointment that the Warren Court did not do more to effect this redistribution. The Right-leaning commenters than go on to talk about how Obama will thus appoint Supreme Court Justices (and lower judges) that share his redistribution tendencies and how those appointees will then proceed to move money around faster than a roulette croupier at Monte Carlo.

As I explained, I believe this is a grievous misreading of Obama’s remarks. Furthermore because this misreading is easily rebutted by the Obama campaign simply pointing to what Obama actually said, interpreting Obama’s remarks in this way has blunted what could have been an effective Republican attack on Obama. Two examples of the argument the Right - and particularly the McCain campaign - attempted to make and the relatively easy push-back against that argument by the Obama camp can be found in a Washington Post Fact Checker article and a FOX News article. Both articles reported segments of McCain campaign spokesman Douglas Holtz-Eakin’s response to Obama’s remarks:

The American people continue to learn more about Barack Obama. Now we know that the slogans "change you can believe in" and "change we need" are code words for Barack Obama’s ultimate goal: "redistributive change." In a previously uncovered interview from September 6, 2001, Barack Obama expressed his regret that the Supreme Court hadn’t been more "radical" and described as a "tragedy" the Court's refusal to take up "the issues of redistribution of wealth." No wonder he wants to appoint judges that legislate from the bench – as insurance in case a unified Democratic government under his control fails to meet his basic goal: taking money away from people who work for it and giving it to people who Barack Obama believes deserve it. Europeans call it socialism, Americans call it welfare, and Barack Obama calls it change.

Leaving aside the fact that Holtz-Eakin got the date of the interview wrong (“The Courts and Civil Rights” aired on January 18, 2001; on September 6, 2001, Obama was part of another radio show on the same station called “Slavery and the Constitution”), he is making a case that simply cannot be backed up by listening to the January 2001 radio show. In fact, his case cannot be backed up even if all you listen to are the segments of the show that were made into a YouTube video attacking Obama. The Washington Post Fact Checker article makes this point quite convincingly. The FOX News article (which makes some very tenuous claims of its own regarding Obama’s remarks) included Obama spokesman Bill Burton’s effective push-back:

Here are the facts. In the interview, Obama went into extensive detail to explain why the courts should not get into that business of “redistributing” wealth. Obama's point -- and what he called a tragedy -- was that legal victories in the civil rights led too many people to rely on the courts to change society for the better. That view is shared by conservative judges and legal scholars across the country. And so Obama's point was simply that if we want to improve economic conditions for people in this country, we should do so by bringing people together at the community level and getting everyone involved in our democratic process.

What could be more reasonable? Obama said the courts should not redistribute wealth. (Okay, actually he said they “could” not but I’m sure Burton’s huge change in meaning will be overlooked in light of the much more obvious errors made in Holtz-Eakin’s statement.) In fact, Obama is saying we shouldn’t rely on the courts to make things better but instead on the democratic process. It’s hard to argue with any of that and the McCain campaign made a huge mistake when they tried to do so.

However, there is an argument that could have been made from the January 2001 radio show. It requires more patient elucidation than simply saying “Obama judges will take your money” but it could have been made and it would have gone something like this:

In the January 2001 radio show, Obama is not advocating use of the courts to redistribute wealth. However, it is clear from listening to his remarks that he considers the redistribution of wealth to be a good thing. In particular, his comment that he is “not optimistic about bringing about major redistributive change through the courts” demonstrates both of these points: redistributive change - in fact, major redistributive change - is desirable but the courts are not the appropriate venue.

Obama does make clear how this major redistributive change is to occur: through “the political and community organizing and activities on the ground that are able to put together the actual coalitions of power through which you bring about redistributive change.” Given Obama’s career path - community organizer, State legislature, United States Senate, President - and his remarkable grass roots organization while pursuing that path, it is clear he is putting into practice what he talks about in the January 2001 interview. He is not pursuing major redistributive change through the courts but through the very “democratic process” Burton says he considers appropriate for such endeavors.

Although the January 2001 discussion of major redistributive change occurs within the context of a discussion on civil rights, Obama’s current campaign makes two things clear. First, he has maintained a continuity of purpose and still supports major redistributive change: his “tax cuts” for 95% of Americans and his comments about spreading the wealth make this crystal clear. Second, his current push for major redistributive change is not race-based: he promises to take money from the more successful of all races and give money to the less well-off of all races.

Although Obama will not appoint judges specifically for the purpose of effecting this major redistributive change, his appointments will nonetheless reflect his long-standing commitment to such change. In that same January 2001 radio show, Obama says “the Court can certainly be more or less generous in interpreting actions and initiatives that are taken by the legislature.” Given his desire to spread the wealth around, Obama will certainly appoint judges who are more generous in their interpretation rather than less generous.

Does this mean Obama is a socialist? That’s a meaningless question. Socialism is not a yes or no proposition. Here’s a reasonable definition of “socialism”:

An economic system in which the production and distribution of goods are controlled substantially by the government rather than by private enterprise, and in which cooperation rather than competition guides economic activity. There are many varieties of socialism. Some socialists tolerate capitalism, as long as the government maintains the dominant influence over the economy; others insist on an abolition of private enterprise. All communists are socialists, but not all socialists are communists.

In other words, those who claim our economic policy already redistributes wealth or is already socialist have a point: there are redistributive, even socialist, elements in that policy. We do not have - and most of us do not want - untrammeled capitalism. For example, we want some government control over the production of goods by private enterprise in the form of regulations to keep us safer both physically and economically and in the form of intervention to prevent supposed competitors from conniving to manipulate the market. We want some government control over the distribution of goods in the form of safety nets for the less fortunate: we pay taxes to support Social Security and Medicare for the old and food stamps, welfare, and Medicaid for the poor. We want some government control over the distribution of goods in situations where that will benefit society as a whole: we pay taxes to provide college aid so all qualified students can go to college.

So, yes, the United States economy does have socialist elements but there are two important points to remember. First, in general we support those redistributive elements in pursuit of other goals. We tax ourselves to help the elderly because we don’t want them to suffer. We tax ourselves to help everyone attend college because we believe that helps our society as a whole. We don’t support redistributive efforts based solely on the idea that everyone should have the same or that those who have more should be forced to share.

The second important point is that degree matters. A society can be more or less redistributive, more or less socialist. So the question is not whether Obama is a socialist; the question is whether Obama’s proposals lead our economic system in a more socialist direction. The answer to that can only be “Yes”. By proposing a redistribution of wealth based on the idea that everyone should have the same, that those who are more successful should be forced to share, he is explicitly advocating changing the system so that the government has greater control over the distribution of goods.

Obama's proposals are neither un-American nor anti-American. So long as we are governed within the constraints of the Constitution, Americans can choose whatever path they want and that path is - by the very virtue of their choice - American. However, Obama’s approach does present voters with a remarkably clear choice of paths. Although Americans have chosen to tax themselves to provide safety nets and societal good, they have also been wary of too much drift toward socialism and have preferred to preserve capitalism, recognizing it as the engine of economic growth and economic freedom. Choosing Obama as President means choosing to move much further down the socialist path. Obama is quite correct in his belief that the democratic process is the right way to make the choice between his path and John McCain’s path but he is quite incorrect in his belief that his path is, in fact, the right choice to make.

There you are. The accurate and, I believe, persuasive argument that could be made from that January 2001 radio show. There are two problems in making it, however. First, my argument took about 900 words. That’s close to stump speech length but I don’t know what you could pull out of there as a sound-bite and I’m darn sure those 900 words would never fit on a bumper sticker.

Second, it is probably impossible for the McCain campaign to make this argument at this late date. Holtz-Eakin’s egregious misstatements in his first response frittered away the impact Obama’s words could have made if handled correctly. Any attempt to go back now and say, “Well, what we really meant about what Obama really meant...” is almost certainly going to be ignored and justifiably so.

Furthermore, I don’t have any sense that the McCain campaign has been making a continuous, coherent case against Obama on the economic front. The January 2001 radio show - like Obama’s remarks to Joe Wurzelbacher - have focused attention on this issue and provided specific Obama quotes to shore up McCain’s case against Obama’s economics. However, it’s not like this is news. Obama’s tax policies and spending programs - both those he has voted for in the past and those he is proposing in his Presidential campaign - are not new. The McCain campaign should have been making this argument all along. Than when the gifts of Joe the Plumber and a public radio show fell in their laps they would have been prepared to use them effectively.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this link, but unfortunately it seems to be down... Does anybody have a mirror or another source? Please reply to my post if you do!

I would appreciate if a staff member here at could post it.


Elise said...

Which link?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this link, but unfortunately it seems to be offline... Does anybody have a mirror or another source? Please reply to my post if you do!

I would appreciate if a staff member here at could post it.


Elise said...

For some reason, this is amusing me.