Category: US Politics

Cdn Politics, US Politics

Après ca, le déluge

Before Obama’s 2004 convention speech, I remember reading a story about the black guy from Chicago who was going to run for the Senate. I can’t remember where, or even what the piece said, but I do clearly remember taking notice. He sounded different, and intriguing.

At his convention speech, he first sounded the themes that would resonate four years later. It appeared as if he was also wise. And an exceptional orator. After he won his Senate seat, I heard the story of how he approached Samantha Power, and how she took leave to join his Senate office. Seemed he was a good judge of character.

I then listened to his first book, and his second, both read by him. His voice was oddly soothing, his prose at times beautiful. He was a good writer. And had a vision. By this time it was clear he was going to run for president, and against a Clinton none-the-less. Audacious. What’s more, he was going to be the first serious post-boomer candidate. He was now going to speak to my generation – in their voice, to their issues, using their tools, in their language.

And he did. Not surprisingly, he captured the support of a new political generation. He did this not simply because he was a great orator, but because of what he said. It’s difficult to explain how refreshing it was to listen to his speech on race. To a generation that had grown up in the age of political spin, Clinton and Bush embodied it, the manner in which Obama responded to this moment of political turmoil was more telling than any. He treated the public as adults. He responded with intelligence and emotion, and in a way that quite literally overcame one of the deepest divides in American history – that of race.

This was more than mere words. It reflected his temperament. And it is this above all else that I find remarkable about him. He is calm and deliberative, thoughtful and humble. Traits rarely found in politics.

During his campaign, I began thinking about what this phenomena meant for Canada. Many of the political realities driving Obama’s rise are not analogous, and many of the calls for a Canadian Obama were as demagogic as they were ironic (given that most doing the calling had spent the better part of the past 8 years smugly mocking the US). But one thing is comparable – the fate of the left, and the arc of progressive politics over the past century.

The reality in both America and Canada, is that many aspects of the Left, and the politics which have come to embody it, simply do not resonate with my generation. Obama, more than anything else, was to me the first to give voice to a new emerging political spectrum. One not governed by left versus right, but by a different governing philosophy, free from the confines of ideology and identity politics. With Dave, I wrote an article on this, and we are working on a book.

So all of this makes my reaction to his win all the more odd. The night was emotional, certainly. The weight and responsibility, the fear even, that was clear in his acceptance speech – alone on that long stage – demonstrated the admirable and inspiring marks of his temperament. But the most striking moment for me was after the speech, when he was standing behind the glass wall, looking out at the crowd. He wore the burden that he would from that moment bare. As has been said of Lincoln, Obama perhaps more than anyone since, at that moment, truly knew the melancholy loneliness of the Presidency that awaited him. And like Lincoln, he will likely be a great president. If Lincoln’s challenge was to unite America, Obama’s will surely be to tackle global divisions. A burden if there ever was one.

What I didn’t feel on the night of the election, however, was overjoyed. In fact I was put off by much of the emotion on display. Much of it felt superficial. Like liberals who had righteously mocked Bush, for so long and with such vigor, staking claim to their superiority, much of the election night melodrama felt more in the service of solidifying an identity. But Obama is supposed to move us beyond identity politics. Similarly, those warning of the dangers of inflated expectations, never themselves really understood what people, beyond the fanatics, saw in him.

And so on the day after, I was deflated. Partly I suppose because I was not a part of it. I am not American. I do not believe that America can save the world. I do not believe in American exceptionalism, even if I believe Obama is himself exceptional, and I do. Partly also because it reflected on the relative smallness of the only politics in which I can honestly participate. I will never vote for a great American president. Nor do I think Canadian politics should aspire to Presidential greatness. Some of these are selfish, obviously, but politics always to a degree is. Some of it is a questioning of how to make a impact, and how not to get caught up in the ephemeral sweep of day to day politiquing.

With these thoughts in mind, I haven’t talked very much about the election in a couple of days. I have been reading a lot of commentary though. A couple pieces are of note.

First, I have been re-reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog posts from the past couple of weeks. In a way, this was the first election where blogs as a journalistic medium have been truly on display. And one of the ways in which they can be so powerful, is that they allow an honest author’s emotion to come through. Voice is able to literally sit on the surface of their writing. There is perhaps no other writer who better demonstrates this than Ta-Nehisi.

Amongst all the spin and the trite political commentary, his writing has been grounding. And re-reading his at times poetic posts, has reminded me what it is about politics that can, at times, be so thoroughly engaging. I would single out a post or two, but I don’t think that does him justice. His blog needs to read, as all good blogs should, like a flowing narrative. This is the very power of the medium.

If you want a wonderful few hours – start about a month ago, and read his posts and watch the videos. It will help differentiate your honest emotions about this election from the guilty superficial ones, the ones reinforcing your identity politics, the ones you convince yourself you should feel, rather than those you truly do.

Second, and I think I can stop on this, is a paragraph by Ezra Klein which I found particularly striking in its clarity. Ezra is a fierce partisan whom one would expect to be rejoicing in a historic win. Instead, he cautions:

My basic emotion is relief. The skill of an Obama administration has yet to be proven. The structure of our government will prove a more able opponent of change than John McCain. But for the first time in years, I have the basic sense that it’s going to be okay. Not great, necessarily. And certainly not perfect. But okay. The country will be led by decent, competent people who fret over the right things and employ the tools of the state for recognizable ends. They may not fully succeed. But then, maybe they will. At the least, they will try. And if they fail in their most ambitious goals, maybe they will simply make things somewhat better. After the constant anxiety and uncertainty of the last eight years, maybe that’s enough.

And if I really think about it, coming out of my bizarre post election mood, that is how I also feel. That things will be good. That the right combination of intentions, skill and temperament are now in place, and that we can begin to have an honest discussion about how to address some real challenges. We can do so out of the confines of rigid ideology and all the bluster that come with it. We can start seeing America for what it really is, rather than the caricature that has emerged. And we can do so recognizing that the world is now very different than the place in which many became stuck in their worldviews, in their certainties, in their divisions. Above all, I suppose, this is a relief.

Cdn Politics, US Politics

Neo-Progressivism: The Next Political Cycle?

Several months ago the Literary Review of Canada put a request for articles about the rise of Obama and what it means for politics in general and in Canada specifically. Mine and Dave’s proposal was lucky to be chosen, and is the lead essay in this month’s edition of the LRC.

The essay explores how the Left has been killing progressive politics. Those on the right have always been clear about their disdain for progressivism and their desire to rollback its success and dismantle its institutions. On the left however, a equally strong conservatism has emerged. Fearful that any debate, or worse reform, will threaten successes of the past century many progressives have become anti-change. It is a more subtle conservatism, but it has helped create a political environment within the left and centre left defined by silence and stagnation.

But change is afoot. A new generation are challenging old assumptions and exploring ways of adapting the progressive agenda to the 21st century. It is these same people – the neo-progressives – that helped Obama to the top of the democratic party. This new generation of progressives can, and will, similarly reshape Canadian politics.

The full article is available here.

US Politics

Obama-Biden (redux)

Just a quick note to mention brag that I called Obama-Biden online FIVE MONTHS ago, and to those that have to put up with me in person, in the FALL of 2007.

Needless to say, I’m excited about the pick. Of course, Biden is as good as it gets on foreign policy. As Arbinder pointed out this morning, world leaders call him for advice. But more than this, the fact that Obama has chosen a fun, very smart, no-bullshit running mate confirms his character. No more Edwards’ or Liebermans. Two direct, real, honest candidates who have both bucked the traps of superficiality that riddle partisan politics. Bring it on.

UPDATE:

Ok, I can’t resist. As a taste of what we have to look forward to, a little Rudy-bashing, care of the new VP candidate:

“Rudy Giuliani… I mean, think about it! Rudy Giuliani. There’s only three things he mentions in a sentence — a noun, a verb, and 9/11. There’s nothing else!”.

Followed up by:

US Politics

Bill Clinton’s inspiration?

Bill Clinton in Pennsylvania yesterday.

“I think there is a big reason there’s an age difference in a lot of these polls. Because once you’ve reached a certain age, you won’t sit there and listen to somebody tell you there’s really no difference between what happened in the Bush years and the Clinton years; that there’s not much difference in how small-town Pennsylvania fared when I was president, and in this decade.”

I just finished listening to an abridged version of Clinton’s autobiography (I just couldn’t commit to the full thing). There are two things that are glaringly clear. First, it’s all the evil “far right’s” fault. Everything. It is never Clinton’s fault. Second, and more relevant here, is that in 1992, Clinton was running a VERY similar campaign to Obama. Had Hillary been in the race, there is no doubt that he would be have mocked her as the establishment candidate. He would have been right, and he would have won. He would have done so using words, which he was at one point pretty good at. And he would have argued that a new generation was ready to have a turn in Washington. Sound familiar?

One more point. Is it really a smart idea to start attacking a whole new generation getting engaged in politics? Like Obama or not, bringing in millions of new voters is an undeniably positive result of his candidacy. Telling them they are naive, waving your wise ex-presidential finger at them, is just demeaning. Way to be inspiring. No you can’t. No you can’t.

US Politics

Obama’s race speech

I haven’t read through all the commentary on Obama’s race speech yet, but I did watch it, and believe that above all else, the style he exhibited goes to the core of his candidacy. He speaks about issues, controversial issues, with a political voice that hasn’t been heard before. He transcends old ideological, ethnic, religious and historical divides. This voice is not just new to the US, but internationally. This is why so many people in Canada and Europe, for example, are watching him in a way they don’t even look at their own leaders. I can’t express the number of times I have been asked in Canada who will be “our Obama”. Same in the UK.

It is also worth mentioning that the voice evident in the speech clearly shows the unique positionally that he is able to hold. Ferraro was right – Obama could not have given this speech if he were white. Nor could he if he were a boomer – white or black, or female. Neither of the Clinton’s could have given this speech. This, however, does not in any way diminish the force of him giving it. As Andrew has said, it simply adds context to the historical moment/opportunity that surrounds his candidacy.

In any case, despite his religious exuberance and US patriotism, I basically agree with Andrew’s post on the speech, some of which is below:

I do want to say that this searing, nuanced, gut-wrenching, loyal, and deeply, deeply Christian speech is the most honest speech on race in America in my adult lifetime. It is a speech we have all been waiting for for a generation. Its ability to embrace both the legitimate fears and resentments of whites and the understandable anger and dashed hopes of many blacks was, in my view, unique in recent American history…

I have never felt more convinced that this man’s candidacy – not this man, his candidacy – and what he can bring us to achieve – is an historic opportunity. This was a testing; and he did not merely pass it by uttering safe bromides. He addressed the intimate, painful love he has for an imperfect and sometimes embittered man. And how that love enables him to see that man’s faults and pain as well as his promise…

Bill Clinton once said that everything bad in America can be rectified by what is good in America. He was right – and Obama takes that to a new level. And does it with the deepest darkest wound in this country’s history.

US Politics

Math v Hope

Some quick answers to Adesnik’s questions regarding my post of last week on Obama’s way forward:

1. Why shouldn’t they go to the candidate who emerges with the largest popular vote?

I agree, I don’t think there is clear reason, other than the fact that the nominee is chosen by delegates, rather than a straight popular ballot. I suppose that means something. Bush would probably think so. I also believe that even if you count Michigan and Florida, which is looking increasingly unlikely to happen, Obama is ahead in the pop. vote.

2. From day one, Obama’s message has been that he is a bringer of change who can unite the entire country, not just the Democratic Party. Thus, would an emphasis on the math actually do more to hurt his campaign than to help?

Well, a couple of things. First, I don’t see how these are necessarily mutually exclusive. Second, I think the message of the campaign can be transmitted in many ways. Obama himself would obviously not be on the stump mixing math with hope, delegates with change. His surrogates could certainly do fair amount to get that point across though.

3. Is it “absolutely ridiculous” for her to argue that she is better vetted?

OK, this might be a bit strong. First, though, her claim assumed that the “vast right-wing conspiracy” is done “vetting” her. That the current silence is due to the right being out of ammo, as opposed to her primary opponent trying to run a relatively clean campaign. Second, what is certainly “absolutely ridiculous” is her claim that she is fully vetted, but then to call any reference to the issues for which she was critiqued off limits, or worse still, Starr-ian. She can’t have it both ways.

4. What I want to know is, is one set of arguments intrinsically more persuasive to Democratic superdelegates? Or is only way forward to forget about which argument is better and just see who polls better against McCain?

In the end, I am not sure if it will ever come down to solely who is better positioned against McCain. If Obama is ahead in delegates, popular vote, and states won going into the convention, then it is hard to see Hillary to becoming the nominee. If they split any of these, or, I suppose, if Hillary has some real momentum coming out of the final few states, then the super delegates will decide based on the McCain factor. This, despite Clinton’s experience messaging, I think actually favors Obama. He polls better against McCain, puts more swing states into play, and Hillary is far more vulnerable on her Iraq vote than she implies.

Plus, what could be better for Oxblog than an Obama-McCain general? Surely that has to factor into our analysis?

PS – In a thorough post on the same topic, Jonathan Chait argues that while there may be nothing illegitimate about a super delegate decided outcome, with the math strongly against her, Clinton’s only path to the nomination will not be a pretty affair.

Global Issues, US Politics

Samantha Power

I am disappointed that Power has stepped down from the Obama campaign. She was more than a mere Obama policy adviser, she was his liberal internationalist Condi. She is also someone for whom I have a tremendous amount of respect, not to mention a fair dose of envy. It was her early engagement with Obama following his Senate win that first made me think that he might be something different. Her subsequent involvement with the presidential campaign further solidified my support.

I perhaps admire her most for her willingness to jump into the political world from her safe and successful academic career. She clearly did it because she felt passionately for his candidacy, an emotional engagement that is too often lost in the ivory tower. I think it is safe to say that she found this position somewhat awkward. You simply cannot speak in the same way as a partisan that you can as a scholar. It is a different public positionally.

The following interview on BBC’s Hardtalk only confirms this. You can tell that she is uncomfortable in the partisan role, but shows admirably how an academic can engage in politics in a meaningful way. This is precisely the type of political discourse I think we need more of.

It is also no coincidence that she has had a similar career to Michael Ignatieff (someone for whom I also have a great deal of respect), who has likewise attempted to bridge the academic-political divide. It is not a comfortable place to be, but I respect those of all political stripes who try with integrity. I hope her experience does not dissuade others from taking the leap.

US Politics

Obama’s way forward

A few thoughts from last night.

First, if you are going to read one analysis, read Josh’s. As usual, he captures the central element of this thing going forward: that no matter how either camp tries to spin it, it will be the super delegates that will decide this (since neither will gain enough elected delegates) and that despite what both camps may believe, they actually don’t have that much sway over the decisions of these delegates. They will go to either who has a clear lead in elected delegates, or, if no one does, then to who they think has the best chance of beating McCain.

So, if this is a given, then there are only two potential scenarios going forward. Obama could continue to slowly pull ahead in elected delegates with a close contest in Wyoming and a big win in Mississippi. Unless Hillary crushes him in Pennsylvania, it is over. Or, Hillary could start to close the elected delegate gap, bringing the super delegates into play, in which case this becomes a battle of who stacks up better against McCain.

If these are the two most likely scenarios, what should Obama do?

On the first, he has to pick away at the myth that this is about anything but elected delegates. This will in part happen naturally, as people start to look closely at just how she plans on winning this despite the numbers, and how the next three contests play out. It is critical that the math becomes the story. Part of this is also getting away from the idea that everything rides on Pennsylvania. From a numbers perspective, it just doesn’t.

On the second option, that this comes down to convincing super delegates who is better poised to fight the general, it seems to me he has to confront three myths: That she has a more developed policy platform; that she has been better vetted and is not as susceptible to GOP smears; and that she has more experience.

On the first, given that there is a good stretch of time between now and Pennsylvania, why not do a series of serious policy speeches. The kind of long, boring, wonky events he did early in the primary. Do a serious foreign policy speech at Brookings flanked by his formidable advisers, a detailed environmental speech, a hard edged discussion of free trade, etc. He could do a different theme every two days, for two weeks. Bombard the press with policy. They will either report it, which is great, or simply report that he has a really detailed policy plan, which is also great.

On the second, that Hillary is better vetted, he has to fight back. This line of attack is simply ridiculous coming from the candidate who has some of highest negatives in recent memory, and for whom Rush Limbaugh is rooting. The fact that this angle has stuck is crazy. They are clearly trying to get into a mudsling and bring him down to their level. He does have to be careful about doing too much of this himself, but there are many ways to get a message out. His campaign has to make very clear what a GOP campaign against Hillary will look like. One way of triggering this discussions is to everyday ask why she hasn’t released her tax forms. The answer is obvious and will lead to a range of inquiries. Let’s get the ball rolling…

Finally, on experience, I say use Daschle, and others of his stature, more in the public. He was on Charlie Rose a couple of days ago, and made what was the best defense of Obama’s qualifications I have ever seen. Daschle came to this campaign largely because of how Obama composed himself in the Senate, and what he thinks this means he is capable of. Get that message out. And shockingly, when he is not at a mic in Capital foyer, Daschle is eloquent, likable and persuasive.

One quick thing on the McCain match-up. Obama’s overwhelming advantage here is that in a change election he simply brings way more to the table that Hillary. This message has to get out better. All of this 3am phone ringing nonsense only serves to highlight the advantage that he has. In this election, one main element of the desired change is away from fear based politics. He represents this. Use it.

All in all, my bet is that his supporters rally, the movement element of his campaign returns in response to Clinton’s kitchen sink, he continues to raise astonishing amounts of money, he keeps his delegate lead through the next three primaries, and super delegates slowly trickle to him. Eventually, the reality will set in that she simply can’t win. Fingers crossed…