“The momentum is shifting to us right now. If we are the leader in the popular vote and we have closed the gap in pledged delegates, that’s a very persuasive argument.” In a revealing piece in the Sunday Times, the Clinton campaign seems to concede it has lost the delegate race, instead placing their hopes on the popular vote. (At the moment, they’re down 600,000, not counting rogue states Florida and Michigan.) This is basically akin to the New England Patriots arguing they should be given the Super Bowl trophy because, even if they lost the game, they got more yards. (They didn’t, but you get what I mean.) Of course, since getting that lead looks hard for them, the Clinton campaign reserve the right to try to change the most-important stat again if need be. (“The argument is being made privately as winning the most votes still presents a formidable challenge. She might, in the end, have to rest her case on her ability to win key battleground states.“)
The Times piece is also notable because it has Bill Bradley calling the Clintons out (again) as liars: “‘The bigger the lie, the better the chance they think they’ve got. That’s been their whole approach,’ he said. ‘She’s going to lose a whole generation of people who got involved in politics believing it could be something different.’“
Meanwhile, the sinking Clinton campaign finds a lifeline in this front-page WP story on undecided superdelegates, which states that [a] many undecideds seem to be planning to wait for now and, more troubling, [b] at least a few undecided super-delegates are comfortable with overturning the pledged delegate count. Says Oregon super Bill Bradbury: ““If the pledged-delegate total is within 100 votes or whatever, I don’t think there’s a great deal of significance in that.’” Hmm. Well, I’d be more concerned about this statement if all the data didn’t suggest Obama is a stronger national candidate with bigger coattails (see also tonight’s Foster win), so I’m guessing supers would be more inclined to back Obama in the end anyway. That being said, I’m absolutely positive Bradbury here significantly understates what the reaction would be if the supers reject the pledged delegate leader en masse. It would mean clear defeat in November, if not a lasting party schism. Fortunately, whatever Bradbury’s personal opinion, this scenario isn’t at all likely, particularly given that super-supers with more pull — Pelosi, Biden, Richardson, etc. — have all specifically argued against Bradbury’s position.
“I think Barack Obama has a much stronger chance of beating John McCain in the general election. I think Hillary is flawed in many ways, and particularly if you look at her husband’s unwillingness to release the names of the people who contributed to his presidential library. And the reason that is important — you know, are there favors attached to $500,000 or $1 million contributions? And what do I mean by favors? I mean, pardons that are granted; investigations that are squelched; contracts that are awarded; regulations that are delayed.” Former Senator Bill Bradley, who endorsed Obama back in January, asks some tough questions about the Clinton library’s shady financing. (And before anyone accuses Sen. Bradley of raising a phantom scandal, consider Frank Giustra and Boratgate.) Update: In related news, USA Today reports that Clinton library archivists are blocking the release of papers involving the Clinton pardons.
In the Washington Post, Rutgers historian David Greenberg calls Barack Obama the “great white hope”, and argues that his broad-based appeal amounts to little more than “a fantasy of easy redemption…Inspiring and exhilarating as it is, Obamamania allows us to sidestep the hardest challenges, at least for now.” Now, Greenberg is a friend and colleague with whom I’ve disagreed in the past. Still, with all due respect, this is about as wrong as I’ve ever seen him, and, by putting so much argumentative emphasis on race, this article veers dangerously close to being the historian’s version of the “imaginary hip black friend” argument of earlier in the week. My quick response, originally posted over at Cliopatria, is below.
The problem for me with Greenberg’s piece is that he too readily dismisses the ideological appeal of Obama’s candidacy in one sentence. “On the contrary, Obama’s ideology, insofar as he has articulated it, seems to be a familiar, mainstream liberalism, heavy on communitarianism. High-minded and process-oriented, in the Mugwump tradition that runs from Adlai Stevenson to Bill Bradley, it is pitched less to the Democratic Party’s working-class base than to upscale professionals.“
I consider Greenberg a friend and an excellent historian, but as I’ve written before, I disagree with him fundamentally on this point. Obama’s language of civic-minded progressivism cannot be dismissed so readily. It’s a huge part of his appeal, bigger — to my mind — than the simple fact of his race. And by sloughing off Obama’s ideological appeal so quickly, Greenberg is then forced to overstate significantly the racial nature of Obama’s candidacy, and make extremely dubious claims about we Obama supporters looking for “easy redemption.”
Also, I’m by no means a reflexive Clinton-hater, although I do feel the past week in American politics has tarnished their legacy considerably. Still, I would not concur with Greenberg that Clinton managed to “formulate a viable and vital new liberalism.” The restoration of fiscal sanity in 1993 notwithstanding, by the middle of his first term, Clinton liberalism was in full rout, and it pretty much has been ever since. The remaining six Clinton years were spent mainly just triangulating madly to stay afloat.
Putting race aside — if we can still manage to do that after the past few days — Obama’s rhetoric calls for a repairing of the civic fabric and a progressive-minded style of governance that dreams big. And that — not easy fantasies of racial reconciliation — is what people are responding to. Without vision, the people perish…and, frankly, school uniforms and V-chips just aren’t going to cut it anymore.
Update: See also TNR’s Noam Scheiber.
“Barack Obama is building a broad new coalition that brings together Democrats, Independents, and Republicans by once again making idealism a central focus of our politics…Because of his enormous appeal to Americans of all ages and backgrounds, Obama is the candidate best positioned to win in November. Barack knows above all that unless people can once again believe in our democracy, we won’t be able to do the things that need to be done on health care and education or to break our dependence on foreign oil. His movement for change could create a new era of American politics — truly a new American story.” Barack Obama receives an endorsement this morning from a former progressive standard-bearer, Bill Bradley.
“‘She’s in big trouble and she knows it,’ a top Democratic operative and Hillary Clinton booster told the newspaper.” As the GOP debate again and the Dems prep for their last face-off before the January 3rd Iowa caucus, a new poll finds Obama is now statistically tied with Clinton in New Hampshire. “Clinton is now at 31 percent to Obama’s 30 percent. New Hampshire’s primary is set for January 8. Clinton’s 5-percentage point drop appears to have been largely due to the loss of support among women.” Nationally, however, the story is quite different, with Clinton still enjoying a huge lead over Obama, 53-23%. But, after an Iowa/NH bounce, who knows?
Update: As a reflection of how tight things have gotten in the Granite State, NH Clinton campaign co-director Billy Shaheen dabbles in drug hysteria in an attempt to tarnish Obama’s potential electability. It should be remembered that Shaheen, husband of former NH Governor Jeanne Shaheen, is the same “statesman” who slung (real) mud at Bob Kerrey and called him a “cripple” during the 2000 primaries, back when he ran Gore’s NH operation (the same campaign that eventually connived a traffic jam on I-93 to prevent Bradley voters from getting to the polls.) The fact that this inveterate asshole is not only working for but running the Clinton camp in NH only further diminishes her campaign in my eyes.
Update 2: “I deeply regret the comments I made today and they were not authorized by the campaign in any way.” Shaheen retracts his statement, and the Clinton campaign says he was operating solo. But the seed’s out there now, right? Pathetic. Whether this gutterball ploy was intended or not, I hope it backfires massively. Update 3: Sheehan resigns. Good riddance.
Reagan aside, I do respectfully take issue with Greenberg’s prior Slate piece comparing Obama to a long list of well-meaning losers, including Adlai Stevenson and Bill Bradley. Greenberg writes: “Obama exhibits other elements of this Stevensonian style as well. It’s a style — an ideology, really — that links the quest for common ground with a language of enlightened reason. It disdains the passionate and sometimes ugly politics of backroom deals, negative campaigning, sordid tactics, and appeals to emotion. It extols sacrifice and denigrates self-interest…What he doesn’t seem to understand — as Stevenson did not — is that democratic politics fairly demands a measure of thrust and parry, of appeals to self-interest, and of playing the political game. And so does being a good president.“
I would argue that these constant appeals to individual self-interest is exactly what’s what wrong with Democrats today. Put simply, our civic life has nearly wasted away, with devastating consequences for the Left in this country.The major operative question our politics seeks to answer today is not “How should we live?” or “What can we accomplish together?” but “Where’s my stuff?” And, due to this narrow, limiting absorption with individual self-interest, lefty candidates of late have mostly based their proactive appeals on small-minded ideas like bribing elderly voters with prescription drug benefits and everyone else with tax cuts. That’s it? That’s all you’ve got?
As a result, more and more citizens are tuning out of the process completely. Without vision, the people perish. People find the grasping individualism at the center of politics today inherently unsatisfying, and they look for a deeper common purpose wherever they can find it. And, since Democrats too often can’t stop speaking in uninspiring technocratic policy-wonk, a consequence of their limited vision and ambitions, voters have been inclining in recent years toward the GOP, who at least offer a flawed but workable story, often rooted in gung-ho nationalism and unpacked ideas like “Freedom, Yeah!”, about who we are as a people. The story is everything (which is one main reason why I was drawn to American history in the first place.) To be successful, to be anything other than GOP-lite — a pathetic state we’ve been floundering in for decades — Democrats need to tell the nation a story about our shared history and our shared goals, and stop pandering to voters’ immediate self-interest all the live-long day.
Greenberg may argue that civic-mindedness in a political candidate is the province of losers, but I disagree — It’s all in the telling. After all, it was the extremely popular John F. Kennedy who reminded us to ask what you can do for your country, and his slain brother RFK obviously talked a great game in that respect too.
In this piece, Greenberg also discusses the retreat from the “the Mugwumps’ and Progressives’ moral uplift in favor of a pragmatic approach” under FDR. (This is also the ground my dissertation covers.) And, yes, the broker-state model of governance honed by the New Deal worked for a long time. More importantly, the idea of interest-group pluralism it cultivated has had many critically important successes to its name, not the least the civil rights revolutions of the past few decades (although those too have a strong civic component — MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech makes it explicit: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed…And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.” This is not the language of self-interest but an appeal to a shared narrative as Americans.)
But I would argue that the enthronement of individual self-interest above all else in politics has reached its logical endpoint, and as a result our system is on the verge of falling apart — half the country doesn’t vote, money constantly bends the rules and everyone knows it, people are losing the inclination (or even the capacity) to act as informed, independent citizens. Indeed, you could argue Hillary Clinton’s failure with health care reform in the nineties exemplified the problem with broker-state leadership: When setting out to confront the issue, the Clintons cut everyone in on the deal, from insurance companies to HMOS to the AMA, in true broker-state fashion. As a result, no reform at all was forthcoming.
This was mainly because, as I’ve said before, the individualistic/broker state model of liberalism has no theory for coping with corporate power — It serves the wants, needs, and interests of consumers, what’s wrong with that? But a civic-minded progressive would argue that there are more important goals than the sating of individual desire, that the government is an expression of our common aspirations and should be more than just a dispensing machine, and that undue corporate influence over — and outright corruption in — our political affairs in fact represents a dire threat to the republic and to our way of life.
The progressive idea of citizenship both offers and demands higher aspirations of people than the lowest common denominator of individual self-interest that both parties appeal to today. We’re fast becoming a society where freedom is measured at best by what choices we make, but more often by what we can own as consumers. Progressives envison a society where freedom is also measured by what we can accomplish as citizens. Ultimately, freedom isn’t a state of being — it’s a state of becoming, of improvement, of progress. A political candidate who could tap into this progressive vein, I think, could inspire people like they haven’t been inspired by politics in a good long while. So, this is my crux of disagreement with Greenberg here — I don’t subscribe to the notion that common-good, public-interest progressivism is inherently a losing proposition. Quite the contrary.
Still, Greenberg’s article does a solid job of delineating the origins of Obama’s progressive appeal, and, at the very least, we agree that Obama is considerably more progressive than Clinton.
“He raises tens of millions of dollars over a few months. His supporters are passionate, almost fanatical. And his grass-roots movement threatens a more established rival. A description of Howard Dean in 2003 or Sen. Barack Obama today?” In today’s cover story, the Washington Post toys with many of our worst nightmares by comparing the current state of the Obama campaign to that of also-rans Dean and Bradley. “Like Dean and Bradley, Obama is strongest among elites, whom other Democrats derisively call ‘latte liberals’ — a group that voices strong opinions but is not big enough to win him the nomination. Polls show that Obama is ahead of Clinton among voters with college degrees, while Clinton has a huge lead among voters who make less than $35,000 and those who have graduated only from high school…But one major difference is that Obama has strong numbers among African Americans, about 40 percent of whom are backing him, putting him in a tie with Clinton.” Hmm. Hillary Clinton, heroine of the working-class? I’m not buying it. (More like name recognition, I’d wager.) Well, call me an inveterate latte-progressive elitist of the first order, but I just hope Obama finds a way to get his message out to the more, uh, likely-to-be-uninformed among us. However dignified their daily struggles, that crowd has burdened us with virtually unelectable candidates for two elections straight. (And it’s not like Gore or Kerry had any common-man cachet either.)
“It is not quite the ‘right wing conspiracy’ that Hillary Clinton described, but it is an impressive organization built consciously, carefully and single-mindedly. The Ann Coulters and Grover Norquists don’t want to be candidates for anything or cabinet officers for anyone. They know their roles and execute them because they’re paid well and believe, I think, in what they’re saying.” By way of Blotter Spotter and The Late Adopter, Bill Bradley emerges from hiding to dissect the organizational problems of the Democratic Party. “If Democrats are serious about preparing for the next election or the next election after that, some influential Democrats will have to resist entrusting their dreams to individual candidates and instead make a commitment to build a stable pyramid from the base up. It will take at least a decade’s commitment, and it won’t come cheap. But there really is no other choice.” I agree wholeheartedly…but to help build this pyramid, Senator Bradley, we need to hear much more from you more often.
“The 50-50 split is not between Democrats and Republicans, but those who vote and those who don’t. That’s right: nearly 50% of eligible voters chose not to vote in 2000. The underlying challenge of our democracy is to change this non-participation and to ensure that the core values of citizenship and active participation in the electoral process overshadow the domination of big money and corporate power.” Sent to me by Chris at Do You Feel Loved, the inimitable Bill Bradley emerges from hiding to admire the Vote for Change tour in USA Today.