Politics is policy is policy is politics
In a response to my latest, Kevin Drum goes into greater detail as to why he finds the criticism and advice doled out by Westen (among others) unconvincing. I think he makes some good points; but, acknowledging that we’re dealing in somewhat unprovable stuff here, I must confess to remaining, on the whole, unconvinced.
Drum scores a genuine hit when, with mild derision, he responds to Westen’s vision of what Obama’s inauguration should have been, writing, “This is what would have changed the political dynamic of Obama’s first two years in office? Color me unconvinced.” For those who haven’t read the original Westen piece, this is what the messaging guru ghost-writes for the President:
I know you’re scared and angry. Many of you have lost your jobs, your homes, your hope. This was a disaster, but it was not a natural disaster. It was made by Wall Street gamblers who speculated with your lives and futures. It was made by conservative extremists who told us that if we just eliminated regulations and rewarded greed and recklessness, it would all work out. But it didn’t work out. And it didn’t work out 80 years ago, when the same people sold our grandparents the same bill of goods, with the same results.
But we learned something from our grandparents about how to fix it, and we will draw on their wisdom. We will restore business confidence the old-fashioned way: by putting money back in the pockets of working Americans by putting them back to work, and by restoring integrity to our financial markets and demanding it of those who want to run them. I can’t promise that we won’t make mistakes along the way. But I can promise you that they will be honest mistakes, and that your government has your back again.
Yeah, I don’t think this is great, for many of the same reasons Drum outlines. Westen’s version certainly sounds good to my ears, but I similarly don’t think that the nation entire is quite as anxious as I might be to crown Barack Obama as the millennials’ version of FDR. I think Drum goes on to take this fair bit of criticism too far, reaching a conclusion that, in my view, borders perilously close to arguing that the only kind of progressive who could succeed in national politics is crypto or pseudo in nature.
[Westen’s essential criticism] is the core left-vs.-left argument about Obama: would he have done better and accomplished more if he had laced into his enemies from the start? If he’d made it crystal clear, over and over and over, who the villains were: Republicans, bankers, corporate fat cats, and the rich? Would this have inspired the public into supporting the full-throated left-wing agenda that Westen obviously yearns for?
Maybe my vision is as limited as Obama’s, but I just don’t see it. […] I think Obama’s rhetorical style really is too diffuse and too vague to move public opinion significantly. And I also think he had plenty of leeway to take on Wall Street and the banking community much more forcibly than he did — though that’s a policy disagreement at heart, not a rhetorical one. More broadly, though, there’s precious little evidence that turning into a fiery partisan warrior would have impressed the public much at all. What it would have done is united the Republican Party even more unanimously against him. Most likely that means no stimulus, no financial reform, no DADT repeal, no nothing. He might still have gotten healthcare reform thanks to the filibuster-proof majority Democrats had in the Senate for a few weeks at the end of 2009, but that’s it. Your mileage may vary, but I think that’s a much worse outcome for Obama’s first two years in office.
I don’t know if Westen thinks Obama should have been more partisan rather than more confrontational, but I certainly don’t. I just don’t think it’s such a stark either/or between the two. I have little doubt that Republican fealty to Wall Street is all but total (so is that of most Democrats, to be fair); but that doesn’t mean that Obama would have been forced to acknowledge that awkward truth in his rhetoric, thus becoming more partisan. He could very well have spoken as if many Republicans were in agreement with him — and the nation — that Wall Street needed serious chastising, even if, deep down, he considered such a rhetorical construct to be essentially nonsense. Recall that at that point in time, many Republicans, knowing how the political winds were blowing, were doing their best to portray themselves as eager to show Wall Street who their real bosses were (ostensibly the American people).
Moving on, I don’t think I can say much more than simply that I would like to be colored unimpressed with the proposition that Obama would have “united the Republican Party even more unanimously against him.” I just don’t see both how that really could have happened or even what it would have looked like (remember the many times that Obama’s early initiatives garnered a grand total of 0 Republican votes in the House — despite his conciliatory genuflecting). And I don’t buy the argument that inveterate careerists in the Senate like Olympia Snowe would not have been eager to jump aboard the Obama express — despite Mitch McConnell’s grimaces and threats — if it became clear to her that the President was indeed going to notch some significant policy and political victories, and that McConnell’s strategy of total obstruction was simply not going to work.
Concluding, Drum writes:
Obama’s biggest problem is a lousy economy, and that’s much more the result of poor policies than poor messaging. He should have fought for a bigger stimulus; he should have fought harder for cramdown legislation; and he should have made more and better appointments to the Federal Reserve. Better storytelling would have made a difference, but not nearly as much as better policy.
I think we see here that Drum didn’t fully catch the totality of Westen’s argument; but, again, since I can’t speak for Westen, let me just say that I don’t think there’s this implied barrier between politics and policy. From my perspective, the distance between Obama more aggressively campaigning for a bigger stimulus, and Obama getting a bigger, better stimulus measure passed, is one of inches. And I took Westen to be arguing much the same. Perhaps we’re both wrong — perhaps the days of a President being able to mobilize the public with words is gone. But I think that’s an assumption on Drum’s part that needs further substantiating.
It certainly felt to me throughout 2008 that the President had the ear of much of the nation. I remember him routinely racking-up approval ratings in the 70s — at times even approaching the low-80s. And I remember that during the early weeks of the Obama Presidency, many were waiting for the real change they felt was promised, that caused them to cast their lot with a relative newcomer with no real experience and precious little time on the national stage. But for reasons that remain somewhat perplexing, as soon as Obama moved in to 1600 Pennsylvania, he no longer tried talking to the people, reverting towards a model of governance that for all intents and purposes was indistinguishable from that offered by his defeated rival Hillary Clinton during the primary. An insider’s game — savvily played, of course; but in essence a supposedly better utilization of the same old system that he’d spent so many months before decrying as fundamentally dysfunctional.
Except, of course, for the recent exhortations to tweet #compromise (for reasons that, to me, remain unclear), Obama has never strayed from this dogged insistence upon governing as if he were the nation’s most talented bureaucrat. But it’s not what he ran as, and it’s thus hardly surprising that Westen and countless others now find themselves feeling so deeply disabused.
(x-posted at Flower & Thistle)