"Building A Coalition To Govern"

Update [2007-12-29 10:54:11 by Big Tent Democrat]: See also Lambert at correntewire.

From the same NYTimes article I discuss here, Obama is quoted:

“Because neither Reverend Jackson nor Reverend Sharpton is running for president of the United States. They are serving an important role as activists and catalysts but they’re not trying to build a coalition to actually govern.”

This quote highlights what has been the central issue of the Obama candidacy for me. I have been writing about it for years now. In my July 2006 post, written BEFORE Obama was a candidate for President, What Obama Needs To Learn, I wrote:

. . . [I]it is here where Digby has aptly applied the lessons of Richard Hofstadter and where Senator Barack Obama, most notably in his latest speech on faith has not and needs to . . . [quote omitted] . . . Obama acknowledges the divide, acknowledges the Republican exploitation of this "status resentment" and chooses to respond by embracing it and "apologizing," so to speak, on behalf of Democrats [quote omitted] . . .FDR changed our philosophy of government and the FDR liberal philosophy remains that which we follow today.

How did FDR do it and can Democrats defend FDR liberalism today? Maybe not by calling it FDR liberalism but they surely can and do when they have the courage of their convictions. The most prominent of these instances was the fight to save Social Security Faced with Media hostility, Republican demagogy and flat out lies, Democrats rallied to the FDR liberalism banner and crushed the Republican attempts to roll back the clock. FDR would have been proud of Democrats in that fight. No triangulation. Good old fashioned political populism won the day.

And that is FDR's lesson for Obama. Politics is not a battle for the middle. It is a battle for defining the terms of the political debate. It is a battle to be able to say what is the middle.

. . . FDR governed as a liberal but politicked like a populist. When LBJ rightly and to his everlasting credit removed one of the Dem pillars of paranoia - racism, the GOP co-opted populist racism, added the Jeffersonian notion of government and institutional hatred, throw in a dash of paranoid Red scare, now terrorism scare, and you get political victories.

The lesson of Hofstadter is to embrace liberal governance and understand populist politics. It may sound cynical, but you must get through the door to govern. Lincoln knew this. FDR knew this. Hofstadter knew this. I hope Obama can learn this.

Paul Krugman has had a prominent disagreement with the Obama philosophy of politics. His most recent discussion of the issue was published in Slate, where he also focuses on Obama and contrasts his political style to FDR:

A year ago, Michael Tomasky wrote a perceptive piece titled "Obama the anti-Bush," in which he described Barack Obama's appeal: After the bitter partisanship of the Bush years, Tomasky argued, voters are attracted to "someone who speaks of his frustration with our polarized politics and his fervent desire to transcend the red-blue divide." People in the news media, in particular, long for an end to the polarization and partisanship of the Bush years—a fact that probably explains the highly favorable coverage Obama has received.

But any attempt to change America's direction, to implement a real progressive agenda, will necessarily be highly polarizing. Proposals for universal health care, in particular, are sure to face a firestorm of partisan opposition. And fundamental change can't be accomplished by a politician who shuns partisanship.

I like to remind people who long for bipartisanship that FDR's drive to create Social Security was as divisive as Bush's attempt to dismantle it. And we got Social Security because FDR wasn't afraid of division. In his great Madison Square Garden speech, he declared of the forces of "organized money": "Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred."

We can not Kumbaya our way to change. We never have as a nation and we never will. We have to fight for change. Obama the conciliator, Obama the mediator; Obama the nice, polite builder of governing coalitions, will not effect change.

If he becomes President, I believe he will either learn this or be a failed President from the Democratic perspective.

< Obama The Politician: "An Independent Democrat, More Conciliator Than Confrontational" | WaPo Criticizes Axelrod and Obama For Bhutto Assassination Remarks >
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  • Display: Sort:
    JFK technocrat v. FDR partisan (5.00 / 4) (#1)
    by Molly Bloom on Sat Dec 29, 2007 at 10:26:33 AM EST
    There is an argument I have seen (but I don't remember where- Robert Dallek, perhaps) that JFK was more of a technocrat than a partisan and that he avoided the partisan ideological style of Truman and FDR. They explicitly ran against the Republican party and its ideology. Go listen to their speeches and enjoy the red meat. Listen to HST's acceptance speech in particular where he reminds his listeners of the failures of the Republicans (I love this speech).

    Democrats since then have run on their ability to govern and govern well and avoided overt party partisanship. To be fair, with the post New Deal consensus, party partisanship and ideology may not have been appropriate for Democratic candidates and those times.

    With the umaking of the American consensus and the GOP's politics of ideology and their contempt of governance and their incompetence at  governance, perhaps now is the time to revive it. Howard Dean certainly revived the form and it is one of the things that rallied the base.

    The Bush presidency is the GOP- no matter how much Republicans want to deny it.  Make them run from it.

    Conversely we have a history of being able to govern. Our mistakes pale in comparison to the Bush presidency and most people remember Democrats as Bill Clinton's moderately successful presidency.

    In my opinion, it would be easier for any of the Democratic contenders to pull this off other than HRC or Obama.

    A HRC overtly partisan anti-GOP campaign could and likely would be painted as a revenge election. Which it is, but not in the sense of punishing political enemies.

    Obama might be able to do it, but he appears to be trying to avoid the label of the angry radical African American candidate. So he has become the cool technocratic JFK. I mentioned Howard Dean's revival of this style. The MSM tried to paint Dean as angry and "the scream" played right into that. Imagine what they would do to Obama. Obama is their darling so long as he isn't threatening.

    Edwards has no such restraints.


    Molly....... (1.00 / 0) (#4)
    by jimakaPPJ on Sat Dec 29, 2007 at 10:26:18 PM EST
    I love it when you duck and run.

    Conversely we have a history of being able to govern.

    That's a funny line given the current state of affairs, and most people don't give a flip about Truman, Kennedy, etc.... People now 30 were born in '77 and entered college midway through Clinton's admin.

    1. The Repubs will run against a do nothing Demo Congress and their attempts to not support the troops. For that you can thank Nancy and Harry. They will also run against the Far Left and MoveOn and Kos will be put in play.

    2. The Demos can certainly attack Bush, but all the Repubs will do is say they aren't Bush and that Bush isn't running. They'll reference his very stupid attempt at amnesty for illegal aliens, his luke warm attempt at Social Security Reform and his inability to hold down spending as examples of things he has done wrong and they won't do.

    The current state of affairs is (none / 0) (#6)
    by Molly Bloom on Sun Dec 30, 2007 at 11:51:45 AM EST
    Bush is at- what 26%? The GOP congressional wing is even lower.  

    The fact of the matter is the GOP has always been lousy at governance since Ford.

    The only reason the Democrats have a low rating is failure to stop the war. I wouldn't delude myself if I were you.


    Fight (5.00 / 3) (#2)
    by BDB on Sat Dec 29, 2007 at 12:22:49 PM EST
    Chris Bowers had an interesting point about Obama's closing argument.  He, of course, focused on changing politics through hope, but here are the examples he gave of where hope prevailed:
    In the face of tyranny, it's what led a band of colonists to rise up against an Empire. In the face of slavery, it's what fueled the resistance of the slave and the abolitionist, and what allowed a President to chart a treacherous course to ensure that the nation would not continue half slave and half free. In the face of war and Depression, it's what led the greatest of generations to free a continent and heal a nation. In the face of oppression, it's what led young men and women to sit at lunch counters and brave fire hoses and march through the streets of Selma and Montgomery for freedom's cause. That's the power of hope - to imagine, and then work for, what had seemed impossible before.

    None of those things were achieved by sitting down and working with the other side.  Yes, folks had to have hope that things could be better, but then they had to go out and fight to the death for them, in some cases literally.  

    That's where Obama loses me.  I'm all for hope and the idea that things can change, but it's his failure to acknowledge the next step - fighting like hell - that frustrates.  

    The best predictor of future behavior (none / 0) (#3)
    by chemoelectric on Sat Dec 29, 2007 at 02:47:36 PM EST
    The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. You are predicting instead that Obama's past behavior will be chucked aside under the pressure of the presidency. We have no good reason to think this would happen.

    Obama's past behavior is of a smart-alec kid from a state legislature (is it a fulltime job in Illinois?) who doesn't even wait for his seat in Washington to warm up before running for president. Is this a picture of a prudent person who will shape up once he makes it to the top?

    He might shape up and he might not, but the best evidence we have is that he simply isn't wise enough to president.

    Wrong, Wrong, Wrong (none / 0) (#5)
    by RedHead on Sun Dec 30, 2007 at 07:08:16 AM EST
    to paraphrase an old quote,

    He's the Wrong candidate, for the Wrong position, at the Wrong time.  

    "We can not Kumbaya our way to change. We never have as a nation and we never will. We have to fight for change. Obama the conciliator, Obama the mediator; Obama the nice, polite builder of governing coalitions, will not effect change.

    If he becomes President, I believe he will either learn this or be a failed President from the Democratic perspective.

    Those are strong words reflecting a decisive conviction.  It just doesn't fit how you go against your own judgment and support Obama; even if only nominally.  Especially when you have Clinton, a proven fighter, as an alternative.  In the end, supporting Obama against your own principles makes you a conciliator, if not a capitulator.  Talk about star-struck.