Obama Nation

by Jonathan Chait | February 13, 2008

The odd thing about the increasingly vicious Democratic primary fight is that it's all about process. The two main combatants, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, occupy the same center-left space on the ideological spectrum. You can argue, with equal plausibility, that Obama is slightly more liberal or slightly more conservative on either foreign or domestic policy, but in either case the distinction is slight. It's a battle to the death between Diet Coke and Coke Zero.

At least, when it comes to political ends. But, when it comes to means, you actually have a radical contrast and a dramatic showdown over the future of the liberal project.

The contrast was summed up precisely earlier this month by Hillary Clinton, who warned of Obama, "We don't need to be raising the false hopes of our country about what can be delivered." This is the transcendent lesson of Clinton's political career. In 1978, Bill Clinton was elected governor of Arkansas at the age of 32, and the two Clintons, not far removed from campus activism, were celebrated by liberals as the promising vanguard of a new generation of progressive reformers.

But it turned out Arkansas was too conservative for the Clintons, and the voters turned Bill out of office after just one term. When Clinton ran again four years later, he had refashioned himself. He brought on the unsentimental Dick Morris as a strategist. Hillary refashioned her appearance and adopted her husband's surname. Bill cultivated ties with some of the business interests he had alienated. Ten years of modest, steady progress followed. The Clinton presidency followed the same pattern. The Clintons came in with dreams of progressive transformation, were broken by a conservative backlash, brought in Morris, made the necessary compromises, and achieved progress where they could, inch by inch.

Clintonism, as New America Foundation fellow Mark Schmitt puts it, is a way of accommodating liberalism to a hostile political environment. This is the formative lesson that the Clintons have imbibed. It is also the central view of Hillary's main strategist, Mark Penn, a pollster who came to her via Morris, who has long advocated for moderate policies aimed at affluent, center-right swing voters. It is not an accommodating kind of moderation. It's a moderation that assumes fierce partisan opposition and aims to narrow its target profile and eke out small victories.

No wonder the Clintons disdain Obama's soaring optimism--it flies in the face of all their political experience. Obama's liberal critics depict him marching unarmed into a partisan battlefield. As Paul Krugman has warned in one of his many anti-Obama columns, "[N]othing Mr. Obama has said suggests that he appreciates the bitterness of the battles he will have to fight if he does become president, and tries to get anything done."

Krugman's critique reflects an understandable confusion about Obama's call for unity. In recent years, "bipartisanship" and "national unity" have usually meant meeting the GOP halfway, regardless of how far right it veers, with agreement an end in itself.

But this is not Obama's meaning of national unity. Substantively, he has not embraced many conservative ideas. And he has explicitly repudiated the notion that unity is an end in and of itself--the purpose is to bring in non-Democrats to enact liberal goals. "If you know who you are, if you know what you believe in, if you know what you are fighting for," Obama says, "then you can afford to listen to folks who don't agree with you, you can afford to reach across the aisle every once in a while."

Reassuring statements like these have given rise to an opposite critique--Obama's promise of unity is empty rhetoric. A Washington Post editorial scolded, "[V]irtually nothing he says is dissonant to liberal ears." Obama, then, would just be playing the same kind of con as George W. Bush's 2000 promise to "change the tone"--pleasant rhetorical cover for a partisan agenda.

But this critique gets it wrong, too. Bush's political strategy has been partisan because partisanship is the only way he could advance his domestic agenda. Bush came into office in 2000 after a majority of voters had voted for Al Gore or Ralph Nader. Polls showed the public opposed upper-bracket tax cuts and favored social spending, importation of prescription drugs, a higher minimum wage, and other liberal priorities. Bush's Washington agenda depended on ruthlessly pressuring moderate Republicans, and his reelection relied on deepening the red-blue cultural divide.

Obama, by contrast, assumes most Americans agree with his priorities because they do. The most recent polls show that the public believes, by a two-to-one margin, that it is the federal government's responsibility to make sure all Americans have health coverage. By the same margin, they prefer repealing the Bush tax cuts, or at least the portion that benefits the rich, rather than making them permanent.

Obama recognizes that polarization is what's preventing Democrats from turning their public opinion advantage into a working majority. His famous 2004 Democratic convention riff about red-staters who "have gay friends" and blue-staters who "worship an awesome God" was not merely a call for unity. It was an attempt to subvert the conservative strategy of cultural divide-and-conquer. Clintonism is a political strategy that assumes a skeptical public; Obamaism is a way of actualizing a latent ideological majority.

The Clintonites seem unable to imagine the possibility of winning except an inch at a time. The question, asks Hillary Clinton, is "Who can we nominate who will go the distance against the Republicans? I have been on the receiving end of all their incoming fire that they train on Democrats. I'm still here, I'm still standing." She sounds like a World War I general, determinedly insisting that the war can only be won with the application of greater force.

Clinton adviser Sidney Blumenthal, speaking to The New Yorker, gave a very revealing statement of this belief. "It's not a question of transcending partisanship," he said. "It's a question of fulfilling it. If we can win and govern well while handling multiple crises at the same time and the Congress, then we can move the country out of this Republican era and into a progressive Democratic era, for a long period of time."

Well, the last time they were in the White House, the Clintons did govern well, and they did handle multiple crises. But the new progressive Democratic era never did arrive, did it?

Jonathan Chait is a senior editor of The New Republic.

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