Monday, December 24, 2007

"Is Obama a Shrewd Progressive or a Sellout?"

The Nation:
Barack Obama's call for bipartisanship (or post-partisanship) has drawn skepticism from some establishment liberals like New York Times columnist Paul Krugman , who accuse the Illinois Senator of being a "naive" and "anti-change candidate."
How you view Obama's appeal to Republicans and Independents in large part determines what you think of his unity message. Some people think Obama, through the sheer force of his empathy and skills as a communicator, would broaden the political landscape and convince moderate Republicans and Independents to back progressive policies they ordinarily wouldn't go for.

Matt Yglesias of The Atlantic summed up the appeal thusly, "He says he's not one of those liberals, he doesn't call people 'wingnuts,' he understands the conservative point of view, blah blah blah, and then here comes his agenda of tax hikes, tons of new spending, ambitious carbon emissions curbs, less invading of other countries for no reason, gay equality, etc. And, remarkably, you keep seeing conservatives eat it up, discerning something incredibly 'new' and 'exciting' in a combination of conventional liberal policy views with vaguely conciliatory rhetoric." Those in this camp believe Obama could be a Democratic version of Ronald Reagan. Think: Obama Republicans.

Other liberals, like Krugman, are suspicious of Obama's inclusionary rhetoric. "It's actually Mr. Obama who's being unrealistic here, believing that the insurance and drug industries -- which are, in large part, the cause of our health care problems -- will be willing to play a constructive role in health reform." Those like Krugman tend to agree with John Edwards, who says the only way to reduce corporate power in Washington is to "give 'em hell."

The American Prospect's Mark Schmitt, one of the most astute observers of American politics, has analyzed both of these arguments and, in the end, sympathizes with Obama.

"Perhaps we are being too literal in believing that 'hope' and bipartisanship are things that Obama naively believes are present and possible, when in fact they are a tactic, a method of subverting and breaking the unified conservative power structure," Schmitt writes. "Claiming the mantle of bipartisanship and national unity, and defining the problem to be solved (e.g. universal health care) puts one in a position of strength, and Republicans would defect from that position at their own risk. The public, and younger voters in particular, seem to want an end to partisanship and conflictual politics, and an administration that came in with that premise (an option not available to Senator Clinton), would have a tremendous advantage, at least for a moment."

In this reading of things, bipartisanship isn't just a feel-good sound-bite. It's a means to actually bring change about.

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