A Bipartisan Dupe

One of the reason that I love Paul Krugman so much is that he writes nary a word with which I disagree. Friday’s column (“Played for a Sucker,” The New York Times, 16 November 2007) on Barack Obama’s adoption of Republican “crisis” language regarding Social Security was exactly the sort of rhetoric I would hope for from a vigilant left.

But Mr. Obama’s Social Security mistake was, in fact, exactly what you’d expect from a candidate who promises to transcend partisanship in an age when that’s neither possible nor desirable.

I don’t believe Mr. Obama is a closet privatizer. He is, however, someone who keeps insisting that he can transcend the partisanship of our times — and in this case, that turned him into a sucker.

Mr. Obama wanted a way to distinguish himself from Hillary Clinton — and for Mr. Obama, who has said that the reason “we can’t tackle the big problems that demand solutions” is that “politics has become so bitter and partisan,” joining in the attack on Senator Clinton’s Social Security position must have seemed like a golden opportunity to sound forceful yet bipartisan.

But Social Security isn’t a big problem that demands a solution; it’s a small problem, way down the list of major issues facing America, that has nonetheless become an obsession of Beltway insiders. And on Social Security, as on many other issues, what Washington means by bipartisanship is mainly that everyone should come together to give conservatives what they want.

We all wish that American politics weren’t so bitter and partisan. But if you try to find common ground where none exists — which is the case for many issues today — you end up being played for a fool. And that’s what has just happened to Mr. Obama.

The left should absolutely not lay central New Deal programs — programs for which the opportunity to create may never come again — down on the negotiating table in exchange for some amorphous good will on the part of the right. And Mr. Obama or any other candidate should get that message in no uncertain terms.

Seven years ago, during the 2000 campaign, there was a fairly significant sub-debate about how time spent as a Senator did not do a very good job of prepare a politician for the presidency. The Senate is a collegial atmosphere and owing to the long terms of office, the staggered election cycle and the fact that states can’t be gerrymandered, it is a much more moderate environment than the rough-and-tumble ideological circus sideshow that is the House of Representatives — and really the rest of U.S. politics beyond the hallowed halls of the north wing of the Capitol building.

I would like to think that all Mr. Obama’s happy talk about bipartisanship is just political claptrap designed to appeal to moderate voters who don’t understand what all the partisan bickering is about. But it increasingly seems like real naivety. I would say that nothing in his experience to date has prepared Mr. Obama to fight the kind of partisan wars that he will have to fight to become the president and then more of the same to pass a legislative agenda. And for that reason he should be ruled out at the party’s presidential nominee.

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A Revival of the Southern Strategy?

I’m going to venture a prediction. And it’s a pretty easy prediction to make in that it’s based on an unlikely hypothetical and if things branch as I suspect, I’ll never be taken to account for my prediction.

There’s been a lot of twittering on the left about the persistent racism of the Republican party and of the Southern strategy. Rick Perlstein is writing a book about it (tentatively titles Nixonland), Paul Krugman’s column last week was on it (“Politics in Black and White,” The New York Times, 24 September 2007) and the Daily Show really took candidates to task for it last night.

Every time someone goes off on this tangent, I get a little uncomfortable in that it seems like a tired liberal saw that is well into diminishing returns. Surely today’s Republican party has retired all but the last few holdouts and dead-enders. But then it is good to look back at the ol’ red and blue map of election returns by county — the urban archipelagos map — and recall just how rural, white-flight ex-urban and Southern the Republican party remains. And even the younger generation and sophisticates aren’t all that sophisticated. I have a strongly Republican-identified friend who, however much liberals may grate on her, cannot bring herself to make any Republican friends because she finds them such a despicable lot. And I should add that she is a person with a considerable threshold for creepy.

Anyway, my prediction is this: that however latent, in remission, or coded the current Republican racist streak or Southern strategy may be, if Barack Obama gets the Democratic nomination, it is going to come galloping back with a vengeance.

It won’t come out all at once. The racism isn’t knee-jerk. But as the campaign wears on and the truly dire condition in which George W. Bush and Karl Rove have left the Republican party becomes apparent to the Republican nominee, the donor base, the 527s and the pundits, I expect a paroxysm of pseudo- and overt racism to pour forth. The Republican candidate will realize that the American public has soured on whatever affirmative message the Republican party has on offer and that the only way to win is to scare the pants off votes over hypothetical nominee Barack Obama. At that point the campaign will go totally negative — or at least its various minions, toadies and proxies will — the candidate must remain pristine from partisanship. I fully anticipate all those dark murmurs that were heard a while back — that Barack Obama’s middle name is Hussein, that he was educated in a madrassa, that he is a angry black man (could anything be further from the truth?), that he has a chip on his shoulder against white people — to come slithering back out from the dark corners or the mind of red America.