The Obama Drama
Every Sunday CUIP’s political director Jacqueline Salit and strategist and philosopher Fred Newman watch the political talk shows and discuss them. Here are excerpts from their dialogue on Sunday, October 22, 2006 after watching “The Chris Matthews Show,” “Meet the Press” and “The McLaughlin Group.”
Salit: “The McLaughlin Group” devoted a lot of its discussion to the war in Iraq. The panelists agreed that the war is unwinnable. Pat Buchanan said ‘We’re headed for defeat in Iraq.’ Perhaps the biggest flashpoint was the discussion of remarks by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld last week where he predicted, or prescribed – since he’s in charge of what happens there – that there’s going to be some kind of amnesty program put in place to pacify the sectarian fighting. Buchanan responded, ‘Well, if that’s true, that’s an argument for ending the war right now. If our guys are there getting killed by people who are going to get amnesty, we should get out tomorrow.’ Your thoughts?
Newman: Our guys were always there getting killed by people who were going to get amnesty. That’s nothing new. As was pointed out in the show, it wasn’t as if we didn’t give amnesty to many of the Nazis and to Hirohito’s followers. So, that’s nothing new.
Newman: It now has become clear to Bush and all the politicians that this is another American loss of another American war. As always, the people saw it happening first. The politicos came to it later on.
Salit: In the wrap-up at the end, John McLaughlin quoted Richard Haas, President of the Council on Foreign Relations as saying ‘The American era in the Middle East is over,’ a position McLaughlin appears to hold to as well. Would you agree with that?
Newman: Surely it’s been dramatically transformed. To what extent, we’ll see. So long as U.S. oil companies are involved in Middle East oil production and consumption, the American influence in the Middle East is not over. But there’s been a dramatic shift in the U.S. position worldwide, and surely so in the Middle East.
Salit: Then there’s the domestic political picture that arises, in large part, out of these international changes and how the American people are responding to them. All the analysts are predicting a shift in control of the House to the Democrats, and possibly the Senate as well. The shift is premised, first and foremost, on Iraq.
Newman: The Bush Republicans, which means virtually all Republicans, have made the Iraq war and all that goes with it, the centerpiece of their political platform and philosophy. And, it’s becoming increasingly clear to absolutely everybody that the war is a failure.
Salit: To take a little bit of a closer look at the dynamic on the Republican side for a second, Eleanor Clift said, ‘The basic thing we’re looking at here in terms of how they’re doing in the midterm elections, is that the Republican coalition has fallen apart.’ Tony Blankley added that though he wouldn’t describe the overall situation in the same terms as Clift, he thought that was true and the fundamental reason for it is that there’s no leadership on the scene that can hold that coalition together. In other words, it’s a complicated coalition to weave together and hold together. His argument was Ronald Reagan was able to do that through the strength of his leadership and Newt Gingrich was able to do that through the strength of his leadership, but there’s no figure now including, presumably Bush, who can hold that coalition together.
Newman: It’s hard to hold the coalition together when the premise on which you were holding it together has been proven to be a failure. It’s not just an abstract or subjective issue of whether you’ve got the pizzazz to hold it together. If you’re President of the United States or a major leader in Washington, you hold something together on the basis of what you do and how it turns out. They did Iraq and it hasn’t turned out well.
Salit: A side argument is that what you have here is a situation where the Christian conservatives are upset because their agenda hasn’t been realized and that’s fraying the Republican coalition. Peter Beinart of The New Republic argues in response that the Bush Administration has been good for the evangelicals, because of the Supreme Court appointments, the stem cell issue, etc.
Newman: That’s true. Except Bush and Congress spent $360 billion dollars so far in prosecuting a war which everybody is now describing as a failure. That doesn’t satisfy the conservatives.
Salit: True enough. Let’s switch over and talk about the 2008 presidential race – another big topic on the shows. One focus point was Barack Obama, now a potential presidential contender in 2008. He was a guest on “Meet the Press” and was the subject of a lot of the dialogue on “The Chris Matthews Show.” Bob Novak commented that Obama’s popularity is a measure of the resistance within the Democratic Party to a Hillary Clinton candidacy. In other words, Obama is so popular with the Democratic base because people don’t like the other options, in particular, they don’t like Hillary.
Newman: That’s probably a factor. I don’t think it’s the factor, but I think it’s a factor for some people.
Salit: Obama is on a book tour and on a campaign tour for the Democratic congressional candidates and here are some of the things he said on the show. I’m interested in hearing your reactions. Number one, he says Americans are not an ideological people, that we’re mostly pragmatic. Basically, where the country is at right now, he asserts, is that you’ve got to move beyond ideology and you’ve got to address real problems in real time in real ways. He argues that it’s time to get beyond the ways in which issues were defined by the 1960s. He said ‘We don’t want to re-litigate the 60s,’ that many issues that were popular, that the interests and interest groups that were defined in the 60s have run out of steam and that we’ve got to move beyond them.
Newman: I think Barack Obama is an interesting and clearly a progressive person and he’s proud of his progressivism. But, in my opinion, it’s a bit bizarre for Obama to suggest that 60s issues have run out of steam at a point when the country is getting ready to throw out the Republicans because of their support for an imperialist war. It would be far more reasonable to say that many issues raised in the 60’s haven’t yet gained steam, not that they’ve run out of steam. The fundamental concerns of the 60s are yet to be realized. That seems very clear to me, so I don’t agree with him there. And, I don’t want to get into a philosophical debate with Barack Obama, but to say that Americans are not ideological, they’re pragmatic, is to say that Pragmatism is not an ideology. That’s incorrect. It is. Now, is that just a trivial philosophical point? No, I don’t think so. I think one has to realize that Pragmatism is an ideology, and that frequently things are done in the name of a Pragmatic Ideology, rather than in the name of pragmatism with a small “p.” So, I don’t agree with him on that at all.
Salit: What do you mean by doing things in the name of a pragmatic ideology?
Newman: That such and such policy is the pragmatic way and that’s the American way, as opposed to applying principles like what would work best for the American people. You can invoke pragmatism as “the American way” as an alternative to even considering whether it’s what’s best for the American people.
Salit: Obama said progressives have as much or more of a stake in fiscal conservatism as conservatives do. Since progressives believe that government programs have to deal with social ills and inequities, it’s progressives who have to demand that money that’s spent by the government be spent on programs that are effective.
Newman: It’s all relative. Yes, of course, progressives have an interest in the money being well-spent on the things that they like and not on the things that they don’t like. And the conservatives have a similar commitment, only for different things.
Salit: Obama was on the cover of Time Magazine last week. Joe Klein, who wrote the Time cover story and who traveled with him and saw him with a variety of different kinds of crowds – black and white – said that he thought that one of the reasons that Obama is so popular is that he is black, but he doesn’t put the pain of the black experience in the face of white Americans, and so white people are grateful for that.
Newman: I don’t know if they’re grateful enough to elect him president.
Salit: Okay. Clarence Page put it perhaps somewhat more acidly, when he said, ‘Finally, the Democratic Party got a black spokesperson for the party that’s not Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton.’
Newman: But the follow-up question, which nobody, including Page, bothered asking was What are they going to do with Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton?
Salit: It’s not as if Sharpton and Jackson have only three people that follow them.
Newman: Right. What’s Obama going to do if they’re not standing up there on the stage with him? No one’s dealing with that, yet.
Salit: At least not publicly.
Newman: It’s well and good that he was the editor of the Harvard Law Review. But how many black Americans even know what the Harvard Law Review is…or care?
Salit: What you’re saying is straight-ahead and concrete and it stands out to me because a lot of the discussion about Obama is on a very abstract plane. The commentators ask questions like ‘Can he transcend American history?’ meaning can he transcend the racial divide in America, act as a unifier and become President of the United States.
Newman: Well, I don’t know that the road to the presidency of the United States comes from transcending the racial divide, if the racial divide is American history.
Salit: Good point.
Newman: At least some of the commentators are not so much interested in transcending it, as ignoring it. The different comments that you’ve quoted here today suggest that Obama could be acceptable to significant portions of white America. But, we also have to consider whether he is going to be acceptable to those same portions of white America if black America turns out to be lukewarm on him. That’s hard to say. Joe Klein said that he’s been following him around, this is something of a paraphrase, and ‘Black America is proud of him and white America is salivating at the thought of him.’ But those two have a relationship to each other.
Newman: What happens if black America starts to look at some other factors on the basis of what Jackson or Sharpton or other black leaders have to say? That’s all unknown.
Salit: Do you think black politics is changing in America?
Newman: Yes, it’s changing, all politics are changing and black politics and white politics are inseparable. Always have been, always will be. This is an American issue. There aren’t black issues and white issues in America. There are black and white issues in America. You mentioned Novak’s remarks about Hillary Clinton. This is a theme now in politics – Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. And it is a part of American history, it’s the continuation of what has been a long-term 200 year old fight between blacks and women on who’s going to go first, electorally.
Salit: This is the continuation of that fight.
Newman: Yes, and it’s kind of interesting. It was right at the heart of the relationship between the abolitionist and women’s suffrage movements. It continues on to this day. In its past history – I don’t know if this will be generalized – but in critical moments of the history of that fight, black people have gone first. Or, at least black men have gone first.
Salit: You’re writing a play now about this subject.
Newman: Yes, I’m trying to write a play about that very issue. Will that happen again? Who knows?