Monday, January 28, 2008

A Warning to Obama: Republicans Hate Kumbaya

There's nobody sharper, who hits his target better, than Paul Krugman. In his column today, he punctures the delusion that all it takes for a successful presidency is charisma, an inspirational speaking style, a promise of hope and good intentions. He turns a cold eye on all the hype about post-partisan inclusiveness in politics. And he has a few blunt words for his fellow journalists and pundits who are behaving more like silly school girls with a crush than objective, critical-thinking men and women covering the race for the leader of the free world.

First, he reminds everybody that, in fact, Obama's campaign shares a lot in common with Bill Clinton's 1992 race, including the fact that he's running against an incompetent Bush administration.
It’s starting to feel a bit like 1992 again. A Bush is in the White House, the economy is a mess, and there’s a candidate who, in the view of a number of observers, is running on a message of hope, of moving past partisan differences, that resembles Bill Clinton’s campaign 16 years ago.

Now, I’m not sure that’s a fair characterization of the 1992 Clinton campaign, which had a strong streak of populism, beginning with a speech in which Mr. Clinton described the 1980s as a “gilded age of greed.” Still, to the extent that Barack Obama 2008 does sound like Bill Clinton 1992, here’s my question: Has everyone forgotten what happened after the 1992 election?

Let’s review the sad tale, starting with the politics.

Whatever hopes people might have had that Mr. Clinton would usher in a new era of national unity were quickly dashed. Within just a few months the country was wracked by the bitter partisanship Mr. Obama has decried.

This bitter partisanship wasn’t the result of anything the Clintons did. Instead, from Day 1 they faced an all-out assault from conservatives determined to use any means at hand to discredit a Democratic president.
Ah, for the good old days.

Make no mistake, that bund is still around and they won't hesitate to do the same thing to Obama. That's the dirty little secret that you never want to tell the children. And believe me, some journalists, pundits and even progressives really are children, naifs even.

Because what they don't see is that the same unholy crew will declare another fatwa and unleash their unbridled rage and hatred against any Democrat who wins. For all their diatribes against "those who have a sense of entitlement" when it applies to the poor, the immigrant or inner city blacks, this group feels pretty damned entitled themselves to always hold the reigns of government. To them, any Democrat who wins an election is, by definition, an illegitimate leader. Again, here's Krugman:
For those who are reaching for their smelling salts because Democratic candidates are saying slightly critical things about each other, it’s worth revisiting those years, simply to get a sense of what dirty politics really looks like.

No accusation was considered too outlandish: a group supported by Jerry Falwell put out a film suggesting that the Clintons had arranged for the murder of an associate, and The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page repeatedly hinted that Bill Clinton might have been in cahoots with a drug smuggler.
And here's his caution about running on hope, inspiration and vague promises.
Meanwhile, though Mr. Clinton may not have run as postpartisan a campaign as legend has it, he did avoid some conflict by being strategically vague about policy. In particular, he promised health care reform, but left the business of producing an actual plan until after the election.

This turned out to be a disaster. Much has been written about the process by which the Clinton health care plan was put together: it was too secretive, too top-down, too politically tone-deaf. Above all, however, it was too slow. Mr. Clinton didn’t deliver legislation to Congress until Nov. 20, 1993 — by which time the momentum from his electoral victory had evaporated, and opponents had had plenty of time to organize against him.

The failure of health care reform, in turn, doomed the Clinton presidency to second-rank status. The government was well run (something we’ve learned to appreciate now that we’ve seen what a badly run government looks like), but — as Mr. Obama correctly says — there was no change in the country’s fundamental trajectory.
From all this, Krugman draws up some lessons for Democrats, especially Obama, who may very well be, not merely our nominee, but our president (and he's still very much my strong second choice).

According to Krugman, the most important lesson is to arrive in the White House with a workable plan for health care reform and, I might add, fixing the economy. Without some specifics to present to a Democratic Congress and the ability to hit the ground running, the opportunity to implement policy may pass quickly. We can expect hyper partisan attacks from the other side, just as Clinton received, and the only way to avoid Clinton's mistake, including squandering the moment and the momentum of victory, is to have a game plan and work it from day one. Because without that, the new president will be sandbagged. No talk about reaching out to Republicans and independents is going to protect a Democrat from partisan bickering and nastiness.
First, those who don’t want to nominate Hillary Clinton because they don’t want to return to the nastiness of the 1990s — a sizable group, at least in the punditocracy — are deluding themselves. Any Democrat who makes it to the White House can expect the same treatment: an unending procession of wild charges and fake scandals, dutifully given credence by major media organizations that somehow can’t bring themselves to declare the accusations unequivocally false (at least not on Page 1).

The point is that while there are valid reasons one might support Mr. Obama over Mrs. Clinton, the desire to avoid unpleasantness isn’t one of them.
And that's exactly my point. When I hear and read all the hperventilated hopes and dreams, I cringe, not because I want to be the cynical curmudgeon but because I know what's coming. The simple truth is that Bill Clinton, in 1993, did not bring all the scandal and scorn heaped on him upon himself. It really was the work of a vicious right wing smear machine. The same one, by the way, that took down the candidacies of Al Gore and John Kerry and gave us the word Swiftboating as a verb. Yes, Clinton gave them amunition because he was a womanizer and they eventually found a woman.

But at the end of the day, his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky was the only thing Clinton was really guilty of. Most of the other stuff was either invented out of thin air or was a case simply built out of guilt by association and smears. I deconstructed one of them, Travelgate, earlier. The others being rehashed, could just as easily be vaporized. As Krugman observes:

My sense is that the fight for the Democratic nomination has gotten terribly off track. The blame is widely shared. Yes, Bill Clinton has been somewhat boorish (though I can’t make sense of the claims that he’s somehow breaking unwritten rules, which seem to have been newly created for the occasion). But many Obama supporters also seem far too ready to demonize their opponents.

What the Democrats should do is get back to talking about issues — a focus on issues has been the great contribution of John Edwards to this campaign — and about who is best prepared to push their agenda forward. Otherwise, even if a Democrat wins the general election, it will be 1992 all over again. And that would be a bad thing.
Let the corporate editorial boards marginalize or ridicule John Edwards all they want. The truth is he's the only one talking about issues in specific and concrete terms and has a plan that he will fight for and implement from day one. And if Obama wins and wants to be successful, he needs to avoid Bill Clinton's mistakes and take a leaf from John Edwards and have a concrete plan.

He needs to have some solid policy proposals beyond his own very beautiful but misplaced idealism that Republicans in Congress are just waiting to sing Kumbaya with him while they walk off into the glowing sunrise of Sunday morning in America.

I've got a nasty surprise for Obama and everybody else. Most Republicans think that only Ronald Reagan had a right to use such inspirational language about the future. They think all talk of hope has a corporate copyright and a GOP brand.

Oh and they really hate Kumbaya.


AnonymousIsAWoman said...

If you doubt me and think my cynicism is misplaced, consider this: Republican bloggers routinely refer to him as Barack "Osama" and have spread lies that he attended a madrassah. That's only the beginning of their Rovian attack machine.

Vivian J. Paige said...

Dead on.

Silence Dogood said...

*nods* Also note how very interested the Republicans are in finding a nominee that has crossover appeal so they can meet *us* halfway, or the obstructionism and partisanship you see in the US Congress today in spite of sweeping victories and a watershed year in 2006 for Democrats. Republicans don't want Democrats who are willing to meet them half way; Republicans want other Republicans, and if you're not a Republican, they're perfectly happy ignoring you when they're not holding you in quiet (or not so quiet) contempt.

Bwana said...

well, first off...

I don't call him "Osama", and I think everyone should dislike "kumbaya", because no matter where it is sung there is that one American Idol reject who sings off tune and drags everyone down and off key.

Kevin said...

Don't forget Barack's middle name...

AnonymousIsAWoman said...

See, Bwana, that's where you and I have a generation gap. I'm an old folkie and I actually love Kumbaya, liberal connotations and all. Oh, and I can't carry a tune too. What do you have against those of us who are musically challenged :)

Kevin, just because he had an African father who gave him that middle name, does not make him a Muslim. And even if he were, it wouldn't make him any less of an American.

I for one would actually like to see both sides stop with the ridiculous name calling and name distortions, including terms like DemocratICK, which I see regularly on some Republican blogs, and rethug, etc. It actually makes the writer look childish.

You can be partisan and tough without being nasty.

And thank you, as always, Vivian!

Silence Dogood said...

I was always more of a Michael Row the Boat Ashore kind of guy but if you've got nothing but a campfire, a few friends and guitar that can't play but three chords, either song will do.

And dead on about the childishness of the stupid distortions. I also think sometimes people are trying to express, like, passion? Look at me, I care so much that I'm expressing my hatred for Barack Obama by distorting his name! And I'm calling him a Dem'RAT. I'm such a good, passionate politics junkie.

Only people don't seem to be passionate about politics so much as they seem to be hysterical about politics, on both sides of the aisle.

YAB said...

You've crystallized one of my concerns about Obama: the getting down to work at once.

Since he is being compared to JFK and Clinton, it's important to remember what went wrong with both of their first terms. Krugman and you spell out Bill's problems. JFK had a similar mess. It was called the Bay of Pigs.

JFK, in spite of a background in world affairs that truly makes Obama look like a kid in kindergarten, still fell for the Bay of Pigs plan. Clinton, with all of Obama's charisma and reaching out (what Obama now derisively calls "triangulation" as if compromise by another name is not compromise)and substantial political skill made several major political errors. Think "don't ask, don't tell".

Since the only example of superb judgment that Obama has trotted out is his opposition to the war in Iraq (which, I should note, I also opposed from the start but, like Obama, was not in a position of influence), I fear that he would stumble over the very same kind of stones that caused JFK's errors and brought down Clinton. It's all well and good to say that experience doesn't count, but can you imagine the Board of Directors of Citigroup hiring the guy who says he will inspire the employees to do better?

This is one area where Hillary is clearly superior. She does know the territory, and knows just how hostile the territory is. She isn't likely to fulfill my left-wing dreams, but she knows what buttons need to be pushed. Obama does not.

AnonymousIsAWoman said...

I think you hit upon something really important when you mentioned that Obama derisively speaks of Bill Clinton's triangulation. That triangulation was a result of exactly the same promise that Clinton made and the hope that he genuinely had that he could bring both sides together and govern in a bipartisan manner.

Triangulation was just a fancy word for compromise. And it seems awfully close to what Obama, himself, seems to want.

Krugman was sounding a cautionary note that the same right wing machine that threw a massive national temper tantrum and brought down the Clinton administration will indeed attempt to do it again.