Monday, June 30, 2008

Obama's Geometry: Triangulation

June 30, 2008, 1:40 p.m.


Nicholas Johnson, "Change We Can No Longer Believe In," June 22, 2008

Nicholas Johnson, "Holding Obama's Feet to the Fireside Chat,"
June 24, 2008.

Nicholas Johnson, "The Bundling Business," June 26, 2008.

Nicholas Johnson, "Will the Real Obama Stand Up -- For Us?" June 27, 2008.

Nicholas Johnson, "Pragmatic Idealism," June 28, 2008.

Nicholas Johnson, "Obama's Geometry: Triangulation," June 30, 2008.]


Krugman and Ducat: Why Is Obama Taking These Positions?

It was over a week ago that I first suggested here -- and was criticized for doing so -- that Senator Obama's flip-flops had the potential to attract a good deal of attention, and negative response from his most fervent supporters up to and including the loss of their support.

In the flood of comments since there has been ample evidence that I was right.

With the passage of time, the analysis has grown more sophisticated. Supporters grow disappointed for different reasons -- some of which are more powerful than others.

1. My candidate doesn't support all my positions. Few sophisticated "political people" would express this objection. They are satisfied with the Rolling Stones' advice: "You can't always get what you want/But if you try sometimes you might find/You get what you need." For them, elections have always been about picking the "least-worst." But there are some who refuse to do that.

2. There's one issue that's a deal breaker for me. Folks on either side of an emotionally charged issue, such as abortion, sometimes feel that who may end up getting appointed to the Supreme Court, say, trumps for them the candidates' positions on all other issues combined.

3. My candidate is shifting his/her positions from the primary to the general election campaign. However discouraging it may be, most voters have come to accept that some shift in their candidates' positions from primary to general is just a natural part of real politique in America.

4. It turns out my candidate is a very different person, with very different positions and approaches, from what they represented themselves to be. This is the most serious of the consequences of flip-flopping -- especially if a candidate has invoked "character," "change," "moral high ground," or getting rid of the "old politics as usual" as their "brand," and a reason to support them rather than their opponent (as Obama has done).

During the past week this is the category into which many Obama supporters and media commentators have been suggesting Obama may have slipped.

To these four, Stephen Ducat has now added a fifth, below. But first . . .

Here are excerpts from what Paul Krugman had to say this morning:

It’s feeling a lot like 1992 right now. It’s also feeling a lot like 1980. But which parallel is closer? Is Barack Obama going to be a Ronald Reagan of the left, a president who fundamentally changes the country’s direction? Or will he be just another Bill Clinton? . . .

Reagan, for better or worse — I’d say for worse, but that’s another discussion — brought a lot of change. He ran as an unabashed conservative, with a clear ideological agenda. And he had enormous success in getting that agenda implemented. . . .

Bill Clinton also ran as a candidate of change, but it was much less clear what kind of change he was offering. . . .

So whom does Mr. Obama resemble more? At this point, he’s definitely looking Clintonesque.

Like Mr. Clinton, Mr. Obama portrays himself as transcending traditional divides. Near the end of last week’s “unity” event with Hillary Clinton, he declared that “the choice in this election is not between left or right, it’s not between liberal or conservative, it’s between the past and the future.” Oh-kay. . . .

Progressive activists . . . convinced themselves
that [Obama] was a transformational figure
behind a centrist facade. They may
have had it backwards.

Progressive activists, in particular, overwhelmingly supported Mr. Obama during the Democratic primary even though his policy positions, particularly on health care, were often to the right of his rivals’. In effect, they convinced themselves that he was a transformational figure behind a centrist facade.

They may have had it backward. . . .

[C]ritics argue that by engaging in the same “triangulation and poll-driven politics” he denounced during the primary, Mr. Obama actually hurts his election prospects, because voters prefer candidates who take firm stands.

In any case, what about after the election? The Reagan-Clinton comparison suggests that a candidate who runs on a clear agenda is more likely to achieve fundamental change than a candidate who runs on the promise of change but isn’t too clear about what that change would involve.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that Mr. Obama really is a centrist, after all. . . .

The real question is whether they [Democrats] will take advantage of this once-in-a-generation chance to change the country’s direction. And that’s mainly up to Mr. Obama.
Paul Krugman, "The Obama Agenda," New York Times, June 30, 2008.

And here's what Stephen Ducat had to say yesterday:

OK, we all knew, deep down, that our wondrous golden boy of change would one day reveal his feet of clay. What most of us did not anticipate was just how easily they would fit into jackboots.

There has emerged a conventional wisdom among progressives that is not entirely wrong about why Obama has so readily embraced police state surveillance, and why he felt compelled to express his solidarity with Scalia, et al, on the death penalty. As the thinking goes, these moves are simply the expectable, if disheartening, political positioning typical of Democratic presidential candidates, once they enter the general election campaign. . . .

Facing the possibility of [right wing attack ads], it is not surprising to see so many erstwhile liberal politicians preemptively surrender their principles. That Obama, too, would adopt this strategy has been particularly demoralizing for his progressive supporters. After all, he has . . . very vocally eschewed the Machiavellian political calculations that we have come to expect from other members of his party. To see Barack Obama behave like any other invertebrate Democrat is an especially painful blow.

Obama's resort to the triangulation of
the old politics is an admission
of a much more serious

However, this conventional wisdom on his political cowardice doesn't plumb the problem deeply enough. Obama's resort to the triangulation of the old politics is an admission of a much more serious limitation. It tells us that he does not believe in his own ability to reframe certain key issues in a way that makes a progressive stance the one that is obviously the most moral. It shows that he does not feel up to the task of rendering some liberal principles intellectually clear and emotionally compelling.

His limited ability to exercise moral leadership leaves him with no choice other than to accept Republican frames on issues. So, on the FISA bill, for example, loss of privacy and immunity for criminal telecom companies become a trivial price to pay for protection from unfathomable and pervasive Evil. . . .

In spite of his limitations, there is too much at stake to not work hard to make sure Barack Obama moves into the White House. And, once there, we must hold his clay feet to the fire.
Stephen Ducat, "Understanding Obama's Recent Right Turn," Huffington Post, June 29, 2008.

In short, Ducat has given us yet one more category:

5. My candidate "does not believe in his own ability to reframe certain key issues in a way that makes . . . liberal principles intellectually clear and emotionally compelling." In other words, it's not that Obama actually holds and advocates conservative Republican beliefs; and it's not that he's willing to do so just to get elected. The problem is that, notwithstanding his Harvard Law School education and record, he doesn't have the ability or isn't willing to put in the effort to come up with compelling ways to present -- to sell the public, to lead in that way -- on public interest policies and programs.

Which is it?

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