How Partisan Must We Be?
by psericks, Wed Aug 22, 2007 at 05:19:03 PM EDT
Part of the candidate blogger series for Obama
I want to start this post by apologizing for being absent much of the last week. I've been visiting with a new niece who came into the world in June and has made this blogger into an uncle. For that reason, combined with a certain amount of upheaval in my living arrangements, this post will also probably be on the short side.
I want to focus on Obama's relationship to partisanship, because it remains such a hot topic and as there have been a couple of interesting diaries I wanted to address. Last Friday, Big Tent Democrat posted a look back at Obama's diary on DailyKos back in September of 2005, now nearly two years ago.
It reminded me of Obama's comments on October 19th, 2005, when, reflecting on his first ten months in the Senate, he raised the question he had been asked at forums across Illinois: "What do you find most surprising about serving in the US Senate?"
Obama answered with his surprise as to the extent that the Senate had essentially ceased to be a deliberative body. Senators address empty chambers. Votes are predictable. Senators regularly demonstrate a lack of independence to vote their own conscience.
In his time in the state legislature, with six of his eight years in the minority party, Obama had the feeling that floor debate sometimes, with some regularity, actually resulted in someone changing their opinion or in a bill being modified. In comparison, in the US Senate, he saw a lack of genuine debate about policy, a lack of openness, and the loss of the deliberative process --- these are not only a recipe for cynicism and disengagement among the broader public but a recipe for bad governance.
It's not just that the dysfunction in Washington is bad in itself, it's that it results in bad policy.
And, even more profoundly, it's not just that it fosters cynicism about politics but that it fosters cynicism about the possibilities of government, which in the end only makes the conservative case for them.
A Question of Tone
Without getting into the Roberts nomination fight or the specific context of the DailyKos discussion that Obama felt the need to respond to, I want to emphasize a few of the key points that Big Tent Dem either misunderstood or skipped over. Obama felt defensive about what he felt were polemics against fellow Democratic senators who voted for the Roberts nomination, he was hardly criticizing the right of the netroots or the public to be critical. In other words, he was criticizing the tenor of the comments and not the comments themselves. The comments, he felt, went too far in vilifying people like Patrick Leahy who voted yes.
I've written previously about how Obama wants to restore an emphasis on progressive values to American politics with his talk of a new politics, and I've acknowledged that Obama wants to return a sense of civility to the process. I believe this is not just a rhetorical but actually a substantive position. It's a position that matters and that is worth talking about.
I think this early essay on DailyKos from Obama on American politics is an interesting document to return to.
But to the degree that we brook no dissent within the Democratic Party, and demand fealty to the one, "true" progressive vision for the country, we risk the very thoughtfulness and openness to new ideas that are required to move this country forward. When we lash out at those who share our fundamental values because they have not met the criteria of every single item on our progressive "checklist," then we are essentially preventing them from thinking in new ways about problems. We are tying them up in a straightjacket and forcing them into a conversation only with the converted.Obama emphasizes the importance of building the mandate for a progressive majority -- that progressive changes on foreign policy, on health care, and on judicial appointments rely on building new coalitions, approaching new constituencies, and restoring faith in government.
Beyond that, by applying such tests, we are hamstringing our ability to build a majority. We won't be able to transform the country with such a polarized electorate.
More specifically, Obama emphasizes that decrying the bitterness of politics in Washington has nothing to do with compromising on progressive ideals. It's not about the value of consensus for its own sake, or about the search for a grand compromise:
Let me be clear: I am not arguing that the Democrats should trim their sails and be more "centrist." In fact, I think the whole "centrist" versus "liberal" labels that continue to characterize the debate within the Democratic Party misses the mark. Too often, the "centrist" label seems to mean compromise for compromise sake, whereas on issues like health care, energy, education and tackling poverty, I don't think Democrats have been bold enough. But I do think that being bold involves more than just putting more money into existing programs and will instead require us to admit that some existing programs and policies don't work very well. And further, it will require us to innovate and experiment with whatever ideas hold promise (including market- or faith-based ideas that originate from Republicans).In other words, Obama argues that by risking a genuine conversation about ideas, by acknowledging error, by soliciting opposing viewpoints, we appear more reasonable, and that by appearing more reasonable, we can help lessen the cynicism Americans feel about politics -- again not for its own sake, but because an energized and engaged public leads to better policy and better government.
Obama also includes an apt summation of the dilemma facing the Democratic Party (after the jump).
The bottom line is that our job is harder than the conservatives' job. After all, it's easy to articulate a belligerent foreign policy based solely on unilateral military action, a policy that sounds tough and acts dumb; it's harder to craft a foreign policy that's tough and smart. It's easy to dismantle government safety nets; it's harder to transform those safety nets so that they work for people and can be paid for. It's easy to embrace a theological absolutism; it's harder to find the right balance between the legitimate role of faith in our lives and the demands of our civic religion.Progressives shouldn't sink to that level of discourse. We shouldn't lose track of our values of fostering civic engagement, promoting the active discussion of ideas, and encouraging democracy.
But that's our job. And I firmly believe that whenever we exaggerate or demonize, or oversimplify or overstate our case, we lose. Whenever we dumb down the political debate, we lose. A polarized electorate that is turned off of politics, and easily dismisses both parties because of the nasty, dishonest tone of the debate, works perfectly well for those who seek to chip away at the very idea of government because, in the end, a cynical electorate is a selfish electorate.
Our goal should be to stick to our guns on those core values that make this country great, show a spirit of flexibility and sustained attention that can achieve those goals, and try to create the sort of serious, adult, consensus around our problems that can admit Democrats, Republicans and Independents of good will. This is more than just a matter of "framing," although clarity of language, thought, and heart are required. It's a matter of actually having faith in the American people's ability to hear a real and authentic debate about the issues that matter.
Lastly, Obama goes out of his way to emphasize that promoting civility and genuine discussion doesn't mean you don't fight back when attacked or that you don't engage in the back and forth of a campaign.
Finally, I am not arguing that we "unilaterally disarm" in the face of Republican attacks, or bite our tongue when this Administration screws up. Whenever they are wrong, inept, or dishonest, we should say so clearly and repeatedly; and whenever they gear up their attack machine, we should respond quickly and forcefully. I am suggesting that the tone we take matters, and that truth, as best we know it, be the hallmark of our response.It is a far more thoughtful response than I think Big Tent Dem gives him credit for and well worth the read. Anyway, with that I'll sign off for the night. Thanks for reading.