August 25, 2008


A Liberal’s Lament: To win, Obama must convince the country that he is a man of substance, not just style. History suggests this won't be easy. (Sean Wilentz, 8/23/08, NEWSWEEK)

Obama's most ardent admirers, who include much of the political press and practically all of the liberal intelligentsia, will almost certainly report and analyze the event as a mammoth historical occasion, and quite possibly praise the speech as one of the greatest political orations ever. But will Obama, amid the pulsating theatrics, also attempt the less glamorous and more difficult task of explaining specifically where he wants to move the country, and how he proposes to move it, above and beyond reciting his policy positions? History, as well as recent public-opinion polls, suggests that he badly needs to do so. As a lifelong Democrat who supported Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton during the primaries, I would like to see him succeed in fulfilling his promise.

Since the end of World War II, every Democrat who has sought the presidency has attempted to update the legacy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal. From Harry Truman to Bill Clinton, those elected president have refreshed the liberal tradition by promising to put their own stamp upon it, and then doing so. After 40 years of mostly Republican control of the White House, it should be clear that mistakes and overreaching have hampered liberalism's evolution. But by renewing the idea that government has an important role to play in expanding the opportunities and well-being of ordinary Americans, the basic Democratic tradition has survived through thick and thin.

Senator Obama's efforts to reinterpret the Democratic legacy have thus far amounted chiefly to promising a dramatic break with the status quo. His rhetoric of "hope" and "change" has thrilled millions of Democrats and helped secure the party's nomination. Yet millions of other Democrats still find his appeals wispy and unconvincing, and the persistent coolness within the ranks worries some party veterans. Democratic governors have already urged him to be more explicit about how he intends to adjust the party's principles to meet today's challenges. [...]

Clinton suffered through major domestic blunders as well, above all the political debacle concerning his ambitious health-care proposals. Some of Clinton's initiatives—signing the North American Free Trade Agreement, a welfare-reform bill and balancing the budget—infuriated the left of his own party. Meanwhile, right-wing Republican efforts to demolish him bore bitter fruit with his impeachment. Yet amid the peace and prosperity of his final year, with his public popularity soaring, Clinton appeared to have created successfully a new, post-New Deal liberalism that was moving the country beyond Reaganite conservatism—reversing regressive fiscal policies that had virtually bankrupted the federal government; spreading economic growth more broadly; finding a new balance of American force and diplomacy in foreign affairs, and countering racial polarization and right-wing antigovernment fervor with appointments, policies and speeches that promoted what Clinton called the ideal of "One America."

But the election of 2000 stopped the Clintonian experiment short, for reasons ranging from the destructive left-wing campaign of Ralph Nader, to Al Gore's strategic error of distancing himself from a successful record, to the dubious, one-vote majority decision in Bush v. Gore.

The "Clintonian Experiment"--which is just American Thatcherism--continued apace, or even accelerated under W, just as the Thatcher Experiment continued under Tony Blair. The challenge for Senator Obama is rather easily stated, though more difficult to meet: he has to reclaim compassionate conservatism for the Democrats or else he'll end up like John Major, Gordon Brown and Al Gore.

Now, the easiest way to portray himself as a Clintonite would have been to name Mrs. Clinton as his vp. That he failed to do so would tend to suggest that he doesn't even understand the challenge. However, a convention speech that explains in positive terms why the white middle class would benefit from its own version of the Welfare Reform it supported so strongly for the underclass (perceived as blacks) isn't particularly difficult to deliver. Just talk about empowering individuals and breaking dependency on big government -- while fostering a savings and investment driven economic boom -- and you'll have even conservatives eating out of your hand.

But the Third Way does a funny thing to people, forcing political partisans to repudiate their party's own ideas and achievements, because too closely identified with the opposing party. Thus, while Bill Clinton ran on "ending Welfare as we know it," his own vice president and wife never made that accomplishment a centerpiece of their campaigns. Instead it was George W. Bush who ran on extending that model. Likewise, much of W's own party hates him for NCLB, which institutionalized public school vouchers for the first time, and for the prescription drug program, which launched an HSA revolution.

The future here practically writes itself: a Democrat is going to "save" SS by privatizing it but be reviled by his party while a Republican will give us universal health care, though via HSAs, and thereby summon the hatred of the Right. But whereas Maverick can easily be envisioned doing the latter, it's awfully hard to see the Unicorn Rider having the vision or the political courage to do the former. That also makes it pretty hard to imagine Mr. Obama giving a substantive speech this week.

Placating the Clintons (Chris Cillizza, 8/25/08, Washington Post)

Obama's decision to run against the Clinton legacy of hyper-partisanship and politicization worked in the primaries. His call for a new brand of politics touched a cord with voters not just wary of the eight year of George W. Bush but even many sick of the relentless back and forth between the two parties (and occasionally even within the Democratic party) that characterized the Clinton Administration. To then use his speech this week to wrap his arms around Bill Clinton would be seen by some within Obama's base as a repudiation of everything he ran on in the primary.

A revealing counterfactual: Senator Obama did great in caucuses by running against the Clinton legacy but got his keister handed to him in primaries. If the general were one big gathering of Leftwing activists you could win by running on the Second Way. Last we checked, it isn't.

How Obama Reconciles Dueling Views on Economy (DAVID LEONHARDT, 8/25/08, NY Times)

To understand where Obama stands, you first have to know that, for 15 years, Democratic Party economics have been defined by a struggle that took place during the start of the Clinton administration. It was the battle of the Bobs. On one side was Clinton’s labor secretary and longtime friend, Bob Reich, who argued that the government should invest in roads, bridges, worker training and the like to stimulate the economy and help the middle class. On the other side was Bob Rubin, a former Goldman Sachs executive turned White House aide, who favored reducing the deficit to soothe the bond market, bring down interest rates and get the economy moving again. Clinton cast his lot with Rubin, and to this day the first question about any Democrat’s economic outlook is often where his heart lies, with Reich or Rubin, the left or the center, the government or the market. [...]

[T]he new consensus means that the policies of an Obama administration would differ from those of the Clinton administration, but not primarily because of differences between the two men. “The economy has changed in the last 15 years, and our understanding of economic policy has changed as well,” Furman says. “And that means that what was appropriate in 1993 is no longer appropriate.” Obama’s agenda starts not with raising taxes to reduce the deficit, as Clinton’s ended up doing, but with changing the tax code so that families making more than $250,000 a year pay more taxes and nearly everyone else pays less. That would begin to address inequality. Then there would be Reich-like investments in alternative energy, physical infrastructure and such, meant both to create middle-class jobs and to address long-term problems like global warming.

All of this raises the question of what will happen to the deficit. Obama’s aides optimistically insist he will reduce it, thanks to his tax increases on the affluent and his plan to wind down the Iraq war. Relative to McCain, whose promised spending cuts are extremely vague, Obama does indeed look like a fiscal conservative. But the larger point is that the immediate deficit isn’t as big as it was in 1992. Then, it was equal to 4.7 percent of gross domestic product. Right now it’s about 2.5 percent.

During our conversation, Obama made it clear that he considered the deficit to be only one of the long-term problems requiring immediate attention, and he sounded more worried about the others, like global warming, health care and the economic hangover that could follow the housing bust. Tellingly, he said that while he admired what Clinton did, he might have been more open to Reich’s argument — even in 1993. “I still would have probably made a slightly different choice than Clinton did,” Obama said. “I probably wouldn’t have been as obsessed with deficit reduction.”

The new Democratic consensus isn’t complete, obviously. Labor unions, in particular, would prefer more trade barriers than many other Democrats. During the primaries Obama nodded, and at times pandered, in this direction. Since then, he has disavowed that rhetoric, to almost no one’s surprise. Yet his zig-zagging on the issue did highlight the biggest weak spot in his, and his party’s, economic agenda. He still hasn’t quite figured out how to sell it. For all his skills as a storyteller and a speaker, he has not settled on a compelling message about how to put the economy on the right path.

He had to run against Clintonism to beat Mrs. Clinton but needs to run as a Clintonite to win the general. It's a tough spot. Making it even more difficult is that balancing the budget was done by halving Defense spending as a percent of GDP. He's too weak in national security terms to propose such a thing without torpedoing his own candidacy.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 25, 2008 12:04 PM
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