Friday, July 04, 2008

If They Don't Do It, They Don't Win

The media and blogosphere are abuzz with the news: Obama is selling out. The Huffington Post led the charge with criticism that Obama is undercutting his own brand. Paul Krugman frets that Obama is abandoning his policy of change. Today's Globe & Mail chides, "Everyone does it. But Barack Obama claims not to be everyone."

There is a shockingly ignorant lack of context in all of this. In every election, candidates run different campaigns to win the nomination and to win the election. In the primaries they appeal to their base. In general elections they appeal to everyone. Ergo, they move to the center.

Moving to the center is a good thing because if a candidate wins they need to govern for everyone, not just their base. There is a tendency these days to remember Ronald Reagan as a great president who was able to move the country in a whole new direction. That's sentimental bollocks. He was a polarizing figure who horrified half the country with his seemingly endless military attacks on little central American states, his claims that trees pollute and that ketchup is a vegetable, his overtly phony actorly reading of speeches... he was an ideologue who moved the Republicans further to the right, for sure: What is there to celebrate about that?

Where did anyone get the idea that election campaigns, especially at the American presidential level, are situations where straight-talking rules the day? They aren't. It's a big complex game of chess.

Here's an example: In his first election for premier of Ontario, Dalton McGuinty signed an oath that he wouldn't raise taxes. After winning, one of his first acts was to create a new health care tax. I supported that tax. Why? Because (1) at the time Ontario was being screwed by the federal government and we didn't have sufficient revenues to run our health care system; (2) he was backed into a corner by a PR firm that was helping the anti-tax lobby and he would not have won the election without that pledge. During the election when he made the pledge, my only reaction was that I supported his signing of it only because I didn't believe he'd stay true to it. A very effective trick in an election campaign, in this case by a lobby, should not be allowed to set public policy.

During campaigns, candidates get forced to do all sorts of weird stuff in order to win: Obama is having to pose in front of American flags to counter attacks that he's unpatriotic and having to ask Mulsims to move out of photos because of rumors that he's Islamic. You could bet money that these actions are not things he wants to do, but that's politics.

I choose candidates like I hire employees. I look at their qualifications and their past actions. I listen to them carefully in the job interview, but I take very little at face value. (If you ask someone in an interview, "What are your three biggest flaws?", do you really expect to learn that they're lazy or pad their expenses?)

It might be easier for me to accept Obama's "move to the center" because I never got caught up in his audacity of hope/yes we can/change you can believe in/blah blah blah. But we elected the guy to win, and he's doing what he has to do to win. Let's give him some space already.

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6 comments:

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

You're not wrong, but it's an awfully jaded approach to politics. In any reasonable universe, candidates (and parties) would say what they stand for, and people would make their decisions based on what they say, and then unless those candidates and parties actually change their minds, that's more or less how they'd persist.

You're right about one thing, though--I don't blame Obama. I blame the historical choice the American political system has forced people to make between the centre-right and the right. In fact, this sort of thing is the biggest reason why I no longer live in the U.S.--there was simply no party that stood for what I believe in. Democrats have always been a huge disappointment, and at this point I expect nothing better of any of them.

Yappa said...

I do believe that elected officials should represent everyone, not just their base, and that means moving to the center. But I agree with you that in the US the center is way too far right.

Why is that? I don't know, but I guess I generally assume that a well-organized right has capitalized on the two-party system to shift politics their way, while a fragmented left has been unable to stop them. Or that the Democrats are more like a female principle, wanting to serve everyone; while the Republicans are more the male principle, wanting to win for themselves and damn the rest.

Now that I think of it, if Obama supporters thought "change" meant "moving the country left" then I can see their problem. But it's a true dilemma because I don't think he can win if he runs from the left.

In Canadian federal politics they say that the "natural governing party" is the Liberals; in the US the natural governing party seems to be the Republicans. Maybe the most pragmatic way to move the US center left would be for Obama to hang on for two terms and to choose a VP who can succeed him. That very longevity, rather than specific policies, may have the most effect.

Anonymous said...

You are absloutely right...

Liberals HAVE TO LIE if they want to get elected.

Acting on their beliefs will never work!!!

Joseph said...

Yappa, I really would like to jump all over your last comment, but I realize that sadly you are probably correct.

For decades, the "natural" party for the US was probably the Democrats. There is a reason they controlled congress for long stretches between the end of WWII and 2000. It had always been a bit tougher for Democratic presidential candidates, but congress and the state governments were typically held in greater numbers by Democrats - at least since WWII.

But now I think the more natural base of the US is Republican. What I would argue, however, is Democrats in the US ceded the ground to Republicans by refusing to stand up for their own values and tacitly (and sometimes directly) cowing to the Republican's claims that they held the "true" values of the country. The more the Democrats "shifted" (and folded) towards Republicans, the more they simply became "right lite." The worst effort was the 2002 elections when they let Bush walk all over them (attacking their patriotism, their fitness to lead, their commitment to the people, etc). The Democrats in those mid-terms refused to take a single stance against him while he relentlessly launched salvos at them.

I always found it strangely telling that the biggest success the Democrats had in that midterm season was Mary Landrieu, who won a run-off election one month after the full election by going against every Democratic standard in that election season and making her race a race against the (then) popular Bush. She pulled it off whereas other Democratic incumbents failed.

As for this latest dust-up, I think Obama said what he needed to say now to deflect future attacks that will be launched.

You know come September the Republicans had every intention of launching a full-frontal about how Obama will risk all progress made by reversing course suddenly. FEAR, FEAR, FEAR. It's what they run on.

All Obama said this week is he will change couse in Iraq smartly and that he will get the US out of that war but in a way that is intelligent and with the guidance of the military.

Not only is that smart politics, it is smart - PERIOD. By saying it now, he innoculates himself from the even worse attacks he would face if he said the same thing in September, October and November.

As it is, all he has to continue to do now is state strongly that he will get the nation out of Iraq, and he will do it wisely and with the cooperation of the military commanders on the ground so as to protect US interests.

That is still a far cry better than just saying they'll stay for a hundred years no matter what.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

Yeah, I still can't agree with this. Elected officials should represent "everyone, not just their base," but they should do it by supporting the policies that they supported when people voted for them. When you "move to the centre," you end up having misrepresented yourself, every single time. I realize that winning in the U.S. requires thinking this way, but that doesn't mean it's a good thing.

As for why the U.S. political spectrum is so far right, part of it is of course the result of just being a conservative country, but a lot of it is the lack of a party for left-wing voters to choose. Canada would be a much more right-wing country if there had never been a left-wing alternative for disgruntled Liberal voters to flee to, as well.

Larry said...

I don't get this 'idealistic pragmatist'; he/she seems way more idealistic than pragmatist! In fact, the opposite of pragmatist. Of course that the name doesn't fit the message isn't evidence that the message is wrong. Nevertheless, 'tis a puzzle. Let's hope the idealist reads Joseph more closely.