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Tuesday, March 04, 2008

What You Don't Want To Hear

If you're a progressive, you probably won't like Paul Krugman's glum assessment of this year's presidential election. But I'd caution you not to skip his column. It's a tough slog but read it anyway, and consider it carefully. I think he's too dour about the Democrats' situation, too hard on Barack Obama, and too pessimistic about the possible election outcome. Still, he tells some important truths that we would ignore at our peril.

Krugman's main point is that after the 2006 Democratic sweep, serious minded progressives had high hopes of challenging Republican ideas and policies in 2008. They are not getting the campaign they had hoped for because instead of ideas and policy, this has become a race about personality and charisma.

The economy is in trouble and most people are dissatisfied with Republican misrule and ineptness. Krugman cites a recent Pew Center poll that even gives the Democrats a 10 point advantage over the Republicans on, of all things, morality. The only area where the Republicans still hold an advantage in the public's mind is on fighting terrorism. But that's pretty low on their scale of priorities as the economy has grabbed center stage.

Here's Krugman's take on the way this year's election is shaping up:

Now, nobody would mistake Mr. Obama for a Republican — although contrary to claims by both supporters and opponents, his voting record places him, with Senator Clinton, more or less in the center of the Democratic Party, rather than in its progressive wing.

But Mr. Obama, instead of emphasizing the harm done by the other party’s rule, likes to blame both sides for our sorry political state. And in his speeches he promises not a rejection of Republicanism but an era of postpartisan unity.

That — along with his adoption of conservative talking points on the crucial issue of health care — is why Mr. Obama’s rise has caused such division among progressive activists, the very people one might have expected to be unified and energized by the prospect of finally ending the long era of Republican political dominance.

Some progressives are appalled by the direction their party seems to have taken: they wanted another F.D.R., yet feel that they’re getting an oratorically upgraded version of Michael Bloomberg instead.

Others, however, insist that Mr. Obama’s message of hope and his personal charisma will yield an overwhelming electoral victory, and that he will implement a dramatically progressive agenda.

The trouble is that faith in Mr. Obama’s transformational ability rests on surprisingly little evidence.

Mr. Obama’s ability to attract wildly enthusiastic crowds to rallies is a good omen for the general election; so is his ability to raise large sums. But neither necessarily points to a landslide victory.
Now, here's where I think Krugman is being excessively negative. I don't think we need a landslide. But Obama's ability to generate that rock star enthusiasm and bring new people into the political process puts him well on the way to a convincing victory.

But I share some of Krugman's dissatisfaction.

If ever there was a time to challenge the Republicans' ideas of the last 25 years, this is it. What I fear is that we are squandering a golden opportunity to question the GOP's inordinate faith in totally unregulated trade, so-called market based solutions, supply side economics and trickle down theories, all of which have failed time and again.

Right now with failure in Iraq, the mismanagement of Katrina, and the tanking economy, the GOP brand is bad. Yet progressives are losing - I'd say wasting - the opportunity to present a credible alternative. We could win the election and still lose the argument over ideas, values, policy and solutions.

But Krugman raises another point, even more important than the Democratic Party's internal argument and the very real possibility that we will squander this opportunity by placing personality ahead of policy. He also points out that there is a very real danger that the media, which has played a huge role in the perception of Obama as charismatic, may be waiting to tear him down in the general election. It's a view that Bob Somerby, the Daily Howler, shares.
Yes, I know that both the Obama campaign and many reporters deny that he has received more favorable treatment than Hillary Clinton. But they’re kidding, right? Dana Milbank, the Washington Post national political reporter, told the truth back in December: “The press will savage her no matter what ... they really have the knives out for her, there’s no question about it ... Obama gets significantly better coverage.”

If Mr. Obama secures the nomination, the honeymoon will be over as he faces an opponent whom much of the press loves as much as it hates Mrs. Clinton. If Mrs. Clinton can do nothing right, Mr. McCain can do nothing wrong — even when he panders outrageously, he’s forgiven because he looks uncomfortable doing it. Honest.

Bob Somerby of the media-criticism site dailyhowler.com predicts that Mr. Obama will be “Dukakised”: “treated as an alien, unsettling presence.” That sounds all too plausible.
I would agree with both Krugman and Somerby about that last point. That's why Obama must somehow manage to add substance to his message. He also can't shy away from taking on Republican ideas.

In debates with John McCain, the challenge for Obama will be to go after the GOP's conservative ideas and to present the public with a better alternative. Unlike Krugman, though, I believe it would be playing to Obama's strength for him to do so in a low key, calm, and civil manner.

Substance matters. But so does presentation. If Obama has a strong point, it is his ability to make his point without launching a personal attack on his opponent. Unless he's attacked first, he does best by putting forth his alternative in a positive manner.

So, unlike Krugman, I am not unhappy that Obama has charisma which has captured the attention of the media and the masses. But like Krugman, I don't want that to be all Obama offers. I hope we have the right argument, phrased in the right way to win the audience and get their vote in November.

3 comments:

BHUVAN CHAND JUYAL said...
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AnonymousIsAWoman said...

Comment deleted because I actually don't allow spam or free advertising, especially of stuff totally unrelated to the purpose of this blog.

Note to spammers: Bar furniture is not related to politics and culture. Nor is your "cool" blog advertising such.

Anonymous said...

what is the difference between progressives and liberals?