Saturday, December 26, 2009

Ross Douthat on Obama's First Year

I've been thinking about blogging about Obama's first year, but didn't have a hook. Ross Douthat provided one. He writes today about how Obama has confounded so many people during his first year. Douthat is a good writer, but elegant confusion is still confusion.

Obama baffles observers, I suspect, because he’s an ideologue and a pragmatist all at once. He’s a doctrinaire liberal who’s always willing to cut a deal and grab for half the loaf.
On DailyKos, DemFromCT has a great response:

Ross, your homework assignment is to write an essay starting with "Obama is a doctrinaire liberal because..."
On one of the most important social issues defining the liberal agenda today, gay marriage, Obama is to the right of just about every liberal: he's in favor of traditional marriage, and always has been. Part of that may be political calculation, part of that may be his honest belief. I don't know, and I don't care. Gay marriage is currently opposed by a majority of Americans, and vehemently opposed by a significant minority. That will change over time, but there is absolutely nothing that Obama can do about it now, or probably at any time during his presidency. The Defense of Marriage Act is not going to be overturned for at least 10 years, if not 20 or more. That's not being pragmatic or even realistic: that's not being stupid. But it also renders any definition of Obama as a "doctrinaire liberal" a little problematic. See also: willingness to use force as an instrument of foreign policy.

In this column we see one of the classic perils of punditry: generalizing from one's own experience to that of the population at large. Obama confounds Douthat because he is not conforming to the conservative stereotype of liberals. Part of that stereotype is that liberals hate capitalism. That used to be true, and it's still true for some. But Josh Marshall, Markos Moulitsas, Jon Stewart, and Arianna Huffington are all highly successful and influential liberal activists and highly successful and influential entrepreneurs and capitalists. Liberals have gotten over their antipathy to capitalism. The Cold War is over. Thanks, we realized that. Bt, dt: been there, done that.

Liberals are still highly critical of many large and exploitative capitalist organizations, like Chevron and Goldman Sachs, but there's a difference between ExxonMobil and capitalism. Liberals may not love capitalism the way conservatives do, but they've learned to live with it. So when Obama saves large banks from going under, most liberals understand that Obama is doing what is necessary to keep the system from going under. They may not be thrilled that Obama is doing it, but they direct most of their anger at the banks, not Obama.

Douthat's next mistake is completely misreading Obama's campaign:
It’s also puzzling because Obama promised exactly the opposite approach while running for the presidency. He campaigned as a postpartisan healer who would change the cynical ways of Washington — as a foe of both back-room deals and ideology-as-usual. But he’s governed as a conventional liberal who believes in the existing system, knows how to work it and accepts the limitations it imposes on him.
I find it bizarre that a columnist for the New York Times would take isolated bits of campaign rhetoric at face value, and then extrapolate from those snippets a governing philosophy. I find it equally bizarre that he thinks this is a clever contrast. Obama campaigned as someone who is willing to listen to his opponents, and engage them in dialogue - which is exactly what he has done. If his opponents refuse to return the favor, that's their fault, not his. Part of his "postpartisan healer" appeal is based on the fact that he does not govern from a position of anger, and he does not incite his followers to hate their opponents. Again, that's exactly what he has done. He can be critical of Republicans, but he refrains as much as possible from inflammatory rhetoric. You will never hear Barack Obama accuse his political opponents of being treasonous simply because they disagree with him. So we are getting what we expected, and what Obama sold - a politician who listens carefully to all sides of an argument, asks detailed, intelligent questions, and makes decisions based both on his personal beliefs and what reality is.

As for Obama's belief in the existing system. Of course Obama believes in the system as it exists. That's implicit in the fact that he ran for president, and held political office for many years before that. Again, this gets back to his ability to understand reality as it is. His campaign was a great example of this. He looked for the tactical and strategic weaknesses of his main opponents - Hillary and McCain - and developed strategies and tactics to beat them. Looking at his track record as a legislator, it should be clear that his ability to get things done is fused with his ability to compromise. Liberals should not be surprised by this: the same was true of Clinton. We also hated Bush because he took the exact opposite approach: he didn't ask questions, didn't listen to voices of dissent, made decisions based on ideology rather than reality, and wreaked havoc on the world. There are some liberals who are not thrilled that Obama is not a pure liberal. But there are also many liberals who are thrilled that, even when Obama does something they disagree with, they know that he has thought about it carefully.

I almost feel bad taking on Douthat, because it's like shooting fish in a barrel.
Conservatives have exaggerated his liberal instincts into radicalism, ignoring the fact that a president who takes advice from Lawrence Summers and Robert Gates probably isn’t a closet Marxist-Leninist.
This also ignores the fact that Marxist-Leninists are not elected to public office in the United States in the 21st century, with the possible exceptions of the occasional city councilmember in some very small town. About the only public figure I can think of who might be close to a Marxist-Leninist would be Noam Chomsky (and I'm not even sure about that), and I can't remember the last time I saw his name mentioned in a liberal blog.

Then there's this gem:
Absent political constraints, Obama would probably side with the liberal line on almost every issue. It’s just that he’s more acutely conscious of the limits of his powers and less willing to start fights that he might lose than many supporters would prefer.
This is called "one of the consequences of holding office, as opposed to being an activist." It's also sometimes referred to as "Poli Sci 101." It's categorically absurd to discuss how a president operates "[a]bsent political constraints." That's like talking about how Hollywood studios would make movies "absent the interests of the audience." Yes, Obama takes into account political considerations when making decisions. This is why he is called a "politician."

Douthat does make one point that is not utterly ridiculous, but still boneheaded.
Obama doesn’t enjoy the kind of deep credibility with his base that both Reagan and Kennedy spent decades building. When Kennedy told liberals that a given compromise was the best they could get, they believed him. Whether the issue is health care or Afghanistan, Obama’s word doesn’t carry the same weight.
Yes, Obama has frustrated many liberals. But talk about nostalgia warping history! I'm not a student of Kennedy, but my impression is that he didn't spend decades building credibility with liberals. He was a privileged member of the elite who didn't serve in the Senate much longer than Obama. I also seem to recall that Johnson - who had a much better life story and record of accomplishment as a liberal president than Kenndey - had a rather fractious relationship with young liberals, like, say, every person who went to Woodstock or bought a Beatles album.

Obama's word carries weight with liberals for three reasons: his life story, the fact that he is about to sign a major piece of health care reform, and the fact that he thinks things through. One more time: Obama makes decisions based on asking intelligent questions about reality. This is what confounds Douthat: it's liberals who are the realists, not the conservatives who swear fealty to capitalism and its alleged grounding in the real world. There are some liberals who are frustrated with Obama. There were a fair number of liberals who were frustrated with Clinton. Remember welfare reform? Not real popular with liberals. There were conservatives who were frustrated with Reagan. Activists, intellectuals, and theorists are empowered by their willingness to pass judgment. There will always be people who pass judgment on politicians, because there will always be people who figure out a way to get paid to do so.

But the latest example of someone even remotely radical who challenged the establishment while running for political office is Ralph Nader, and most Kossacks bristle at the very mention of his name. He is persona non grata among a large chunk of the Democratic base. Like about 95% of the Democratic base. We have seen the price of enforcing ideological purity, and we are not interested in paying that price again. Obama frustrates some liberals. But he also gets things done. Big things.

If anything, it is a sign of Obama's success that he leaves his opponents so utterly confused. I understand Douthat's confusion, because I was in the same position in the 80's as I opposed Reagan. I just could not wrap my mind around the fact that so many people in this country voted for a man who seemed both so stupid and wrong. Later I realized that he wasn't as stupid as I thought he was, and liberalism had spent a large chunk of its intellectual energy. But before I realized that, I spent many years in denial about the failures of liberalism. The fact that the Berlin Wall fell while I was in college was a big help.

Conservatives are in the same place that I was. They're in denial about the failures of conservatism and furstrated because they can't get any traction attacking Obama. Remember the line that Obama was taking on too many things at once? Yeah, that didn't go anywhere. Obama as socialist? Sure, because socialists are so willing to spend billions propping up banks and saving old-line industrial behemoths.

The defining sign of Douthat's confusion is this line:

[U]sing cynical means to progressive ends (think of the pork-laden stimulus bill or the frantic vote-buying that preceded this week’s Senate health care votes) tends to confirm independent voters’ worst fears about liberal government: that it’s a racket rigged to benefit privileged insiders and a corrupt marketplace floated by our tax dollars.
"A racket rigged to benefit privileged insiders?" Is the man completely unaware that Dick Cheney was the former chairman of Haliburton? Has he forgotten that Bush pushed through massive tax cuts that benefited the rich? The last two Democratic presidents have been men who had absolutely no help in life from their fathers. The two before that weren't exactly East Coast elites. Yes, Obama has helped out banks. But Republicans are trying to paint Obama as an unAmerican socialist who is also tight with the Establishment. There are three terms to describe this failure to resolve contradictory ideas: 1) "cognitive dissonance," 2) "lack of connection to reality," and 3) "electoral failure."


Phil Ha said...

Well done John! Thank you for tearing Ross apart. Happy new year!

Gwennegaia said...

great thoughts, John! you express very articulately so much of what I have been thinking.....I wrote somewhere, this weekend, about my amazement at the liberal back lash/temper tantrum about health care reform, and our apparent inability to think rationally - and ability to truly lead???

yes, we're disappointed that we didn't get what we wanted! I'm disheartened that that is the best this country can do.......I disgusted with the Senate and our corporatocracy.....but grateful that we seem to being on the verge of a truly historic bill.

unbelievable to be the ONLY industrialized nation not to pool our resources and give ourselves good deals on health care......unbelievable that so many believe that corporations should get their 20+% of our tax dollar.......oh well. so we have utility-like insurers.......and so, our next focus is before us.

loved Howard Zinn's 'The People Speak'......we must be citizen activists for the elites will give up any rights/pittances to us. SO BE IT! sorry that my bubble of democracy has been broken, but at least I have the time and the energy to do what I can about it!

You go, John, you say so elegantly what we all are thinking.......