Barack Obama surely expected he’d come under attack. No one with aspirations to high office can expect otherwise. But the Right’s contradictory demands of him are bewildering, and change almost as fast as they can poll their effects.
During the primaries the pundits feared Obama might be “too black” for America’s sensibilities; then, they thought he might not be “black enough” to impress black voters. But race isn’t an acceptable way to keep someone from office anymore, so the McCain campaign and their friends in the media have come up with new sets of hoops they’d like Obama to jump through.
He’s got to have experience, and Obama is just too green, they say regretfully – not Presidential material.
Perhaps McCain is irked by the fact that Obama nevertheless predicted better the course of the occupation of Iraq, and recognized much sooner the need for more troops in Afghanistan.
So Republicans don’t talk about wisdom or good judgment. McCain’s measure of experience seems to be age and time spent in Vietnam (ergo, John McCain has more experience).
And as early as a month ago, Republicans were attacking Obama for not having visited Iraq in two years. The RNC even started a countdown clock to goad him into going there, apparently thinking such a visit would expose Obama’s foreign-policy vacuousness for all the world’s cameras to see.
Obama accepted the challenge, visiting not only Iraq but also Afghanistan, and Europe, speaking confidently and competently to foreign Presidents and Prime Ministers.
“It’s a perverse game of moving goalposts and catch-22′s.”
And the reaction of Republicans and right-leaning pundits? No apologies, of course, nor corrections; not even much discussion about that foreign-policy experience which it was originally all about.
No, they’ve shifted critiques. Now it’s, “Obama is acting too Presidential.”
Granted, he knew what he was getting into by running, and despite my recent criticism of some of his policy positions, these new criticisms are fiendish and Orwellian. It’s a perverse game of moving goalposts and catch-22′s, and it’s not just the strategy of the McCain campaign; the media is running with it, too.
Witness Dana Milbank’s column in the Washington Post, referring to Obama as the “self-elected” President. Apparently, Milbank doesn’t expect anyone to read anything beyond the photo caption, because the examples he cites undercut his own argument.
To Milbank, Obama’s demonstration of foreign-policy competence is actually a show of arrogance (fitting in nicely with the Republican’s favorite caricature of Democrats) – Who does Obama think he is, acting like the President before he’s even won?!
And all that police protection – “He traveled in a bubble more insulating than the actual President’s.”
It must be frustrating for conservatives to see a Democrat more popular overseas than the sitting President, but Obama didn’t order up the crowds and the police protection. The crowds were there because people like him, and Obama represents the America that many foreigners used to know and love, and those foreigners like being able to like America again.
That George W. Bush is so unpopular is no fault of Obama’s.
The police protection is merely a result of that popularity. A well-liked American leader – especially one who may become the first black President – is a more likely target than an unpopular white President counting the days till his retirement.
On his return, Obama spoke with members of the House of Representatives. To prove Obama’s audacious arrogance, Milbank shares a line Obama was quoted as saying: “I have become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions.”
Oops, did Milbank mean to include that as an example?
It doesn’t reflect arrogance. Obama didn’t say, “I am America’s salvation.” He said that people see him as the symbol of America’s possible return to greatness.
It speaks volumes about Obama’s ability to step outside himself, even in these heady days of rock-star popularity, and realize he’s nothing more than a vehicle that the voters may use to put the country back on track themselves.
But to those who hope that that hope turns out to be false, everything Obama does is hubris. That his staff is planning for his transition to the White House is “premature drape measuring” (to Republicans, not Milbank, perish the thought).
But these days, either candidate’s failure to start planning for January would be highly irresponsible, according to Paul Light (perhaps the only expert on Presidential transitions).
Surely, Republicans would like it even more if Obama wasn’t preparing to govern; then they could accuse him of not planning ahead. The talking point they’d give their friends in the media would be, “Obama’s failure to prepare for the Presidential transition shows that he just doesn’t understand the national security challenges facing us in this post-9/11 world.”
“Too black,” then “not black enough”; “too liberal,” then “not resolute enough”; “not Presidential enough,” then “acting too Presidential.”
Race used to be enough to keep some people from high office but times are changing and Obama may win despite his race.
He keeps passing the tests they put him to; now they’re simply making their tests unpassable.
So with Hillary looking small in the rear view mirror, the Presidential race is down to two people, right?
Wrong. With the Green Party’s recent nomination of former Democratic Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, there’s now another hopeful on the ballot. It’s tempting to focus on the cable networks’ dramatization of Obama versus McCain, but frankly I don’t care whether Obama is wearing a flag pin today or McCain challenged his opponent’s patriotism.
You’d think with all the trouble and strife here and abroad, the media could find something more important to talk about as the nation prepares to change captains.
No, no, they say, we can’t cover the third parties, they’re insignificant and irrelevant and there’s more important news to chase.
No wonder so many readers turn to political blogs.
Last month I reviewed the Libertarian party ticket (not glowingly, to be honest). This year, the Green Party ticket is just as hopeless (come on, let’s be realistic), but in the U.S. political system, where the media decide who’s a “serious” candidate and who’s not, third parties don’t run to win.
But we should still pay attention.
“In the end, third-party platforms are pleas to call attention to the fact that the ‘popular consensus’ may be a wide, paved road to ruin.”
So I recently downloaded the Green Party platform, as a 76-page pdf. (No one can accuse them of being policy lightweights).
The Green platform addresses issues from foreign policy to urban land use, religious freedom to justice for native Hawaiians. Sometimes it reads more like a list of what’s wrong with the world rather than what a U.S. President can do to fix it.
The fact that so many convention delegates could agree on such a detailed document is remarkable itself. But more remarkable, I think, is the effort they’re putting into a campaign they can’t expect to win.
The media usually write off Green-party supporters as extremists or naive idealists, or ignore them entirely. But I don’t believe the Greens are so politically green that they really think they can put their candidate in the Oval Office.
When third-party supporters spend their time and money pushing a candidate who’s doomed to be remembered (if at all) by the mainstream media as an also-ran, something more is going on than masochism.
The Green Party’s top concern, of course, is that the American consensus continually elects either an anti-environmentalist or a non-anti-environmentalist, but never an environmentalist. (Even in greener times, like when Al Gore had Bill Clinton’s ear, the U.S. was still on course to environmental reckoning.)
It’s hard to deny the depth of the Green’s passion; sketching out a more sustainable country, and then advocating for it, seems even more important to them than campaign strategy.
Take McKinney’s running mate.
Media pundits love to speculate on the politicians the two major candidates might pick as their number twos. Today’s conventional wisdom seems to be that they should choose their VPs by two criteria: they should come from a big swing state, and they should be safe picks.
By contrast, Cynthia McKinney’s pick is another African-American woman, Rosa Clemente, who is a journalist and a hip hop artist.
Clearly, the Greens are trying less hard to rule the country than they are to simply connect with it.
When so many in politics sacrifice their values to win, it’s refreshing to see a party sticking to its message and values, even when it means alienating the centrists that the “serious candidates” pander to every four years, like clockwork. Because in the end, third-party platforms are pleas (some would say, desperate pleas) to call attention to the fact that the “popular consensus” may be a wide, paved road to ruin.
It’s up to you to decide whether those platforms are worth the paper they’re printed on. But when aspiring candidates work harder to win exposure for their ideas than donations for their Presidential bids, it’s hard not to sit up and tune in.
Unless, of course, you’re a cable news director.
Throngs of young, wide-eyed progressives believed they could believe in Barack Obama. They are now waking up from their first political hangover and wondering whether they drank too much rhetorical tequila.
In recent days (all since wrapping up the Democratic nomination) Obama has “moved to the center” on many issues dear to the hearts of his fans. He has declared that
- he won’t put up a fight on the issue of illegal wiretapping
- he won’t accept public financing (allowing the money to flow into his campaign at full speed)
- he agrees with the Supreme Court’s ruling that the 2nd amendment protects the individual right to pack heat
- he will “refine” his policies for Iraq after his visit there this summer
Republican strategists are surely licking their chops over all the “flip-flop” ads they’ll be able to run between now and November.
But is Obama really “moving to the center”? Is he abandoning his principles?
“All that money can buy enough ads to remind voters that Obama has always supported camping finance reform.”
By “refining” his policies for Iraq, Obama later clarified that he did not mean leaving the troops there, or even slowing their redeployment. Supporters and opponents of the war should all want Iraq policy to reflect the latest information. The idea that Obama was waffling on his commitment to bring most of the troops home is ludicrous. Even a political advisor to a high school class president would know that backtracking on that issue would be political suicide.
His recent position on gun control is more worrying. A generous observer would say that supporting the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn D.C.’s handgun ban is simply pragmatic: it’s a complicated issue, the Court made a decision, and that decision still left the door open for some restrictions on firearms.
A cynic might say he backtracked on an issue of public safety. He might have found the courage to object if he wasn’t so unpopular among lesser-educated, non-urban, white males.
Obama’s decision to forgo the limits of public financing is also remarkable. What tempted him to suspend his opposition to unlimited campaign funding? Apparently, the realization that his own campaign funds could be unlimited.
Generous observer: Much of Obama’s money comes in small bundles from many people, and why should he tie his hands when he’ll need big bucks to fight those 527 ads accusing him of being a chronic unpatriotic Islamic hydroponic-arugula eater?
Cynic: All that money can buy enough ads to remind voters that Obama has always supported camping finance reform.
As for the wiretapping issue – letting telecom companies off the hook for allowing the administration to illegally spy on U.S. citizens – I’ll allow the generous observer one observation: politics is about compromise, and while Obama promised to fight the administration on this issue, sometimes casting votes that you don’t fully believe in is how the political sausage is made.
But here, the “generous observer” is too generous.
A real leader knows when not to back down. Government wiretapping of American citizens and retroactively changing the law to protect those who conducted it is not just another political issue. It’s a stark choice between the rule of law and tyranny.
(And, as the Daily Kos notes, why is a casual attitude toward the Constitution considered “moving towards the center”?)
To Obama’s more idealistic supporters, backing down on this issue is as inexcusable as reversing opposition to the war would be. Just as there are people hiding in caves who want to use force against the United States, there are people in Washington, D.C. who are willing to chip away at the country’s core principles. That one of these people is the President isn’t a reason to look the other way. Allowing them to surrender some of the rights of Americans is bad enough; legalizing it all retroactively is doubly so.
That’s the principle. Obama’s team is also wrong about the politics.
They are right that conservatives, and the media which parrot their rhetoric, give a lot of grief to those who don’t appear “tough enough” on terrorism, and give little reward to those who stand up for the Constitution.
But if they’re worth their paycheck they’ll know that the Republicans will try to paint the Democratic nominee as weak on terrorism no matter what he does. Americans are hungry for a strong leader, but they don’t see strength solely in terms of “anti-terrorist toughness,” especially after seeing where it got President Bush. People know that strength means standing up for principle, even at the risk of political harm.
Now the country has seen Obama surrender on an important issue – and not to some popular or respected leader, but to the failed President and politician that most Americans can’t wait to see the end of.
Barack Obama has not only alienated those young idealists. He has shown those swing voters that he’s willing to bargain key principles for their votes.
Rather than run to some imagined “center” where he’s safe from political attack, Obama needs only to stay put and stand up.
But first, he has an important flip-flop to make.