Friday, February 15, 2008

The GOP Plan for an Obama Candidacy

Charles Krauthammer has a recent column in which he discusses what he sees as the disturbing nature of the "Cult of Obama." It is a meme against Obama that is recently gaining steam, but is based on nothing more than a fear of the "feel-good" candidate. Part of the rich irony of this meme, at least coming out of the GOP, is that it constructs Obama's emotional appeal around a religious messianism and, almost incredibly, paints such an appeal in a very negative light. This is the same GOP that makes no bones about a Huckabee candidacy, whose populist religious messianism is not only NOT constructed by Huckabee's opponents, but is actually embraced and promoted by Huckabee himself as the very strength of his appeal. Here's Krauthammer:

And now, in the most amazing trick of all, a silver-tongued freshman senator has found a way to sell hope. To get it, you need only give him your vote. Barack Obama is getting millions.

This kind of sale is hardly new. Organized religion has been offering a similar commodity -- salvation -- for millennia. Which is why the Obama campaign has the feel of a religious revival with, as writer James Wolcott observed, a "salvational fervor" and "idealistic zeal divorced from any particular policy or cause and chariot-driven by pure euphoria."

"We are the hope of the future," sayeth Obama. We can "remake this world as it should be." Believe in me and I shall redeem not just you but your country -- nay, we can become "a hymn that will heal this nation, repair this world, and make this time different than all the rest."
But this meme is as empty of substance as it claims Obama of being. It rests on an assumption that any candidate who taps into emotion must not have much of policy substance about him. Again, here's Krauthammer on the point:
I've seen only one similar national swoon. As a teenager growing up in Canada, I witnessed a charismatic law professor go from obscurity to justice minister to prime minister, carried on a wave of what was called Trudeaumania.

But even there the object of his countrymen's unrestrained affections was no blank slate. Pierre Trudeau was already a serious intellectual who had written and thought and lectured long about the nature and future of his country.

Obama has an astonishingly empty paper trail. He's going around issuing promissory notes on the future that he can't possibly redeem. [Emphasis Added.]
I, like Andrew Sullivan, find this a baffling and completely unsubstantiated charge. Think about it on a number of levels: (1) What other candidate, even before being catapulted into the national limelight or any political office, had published an autobiography that opened a window to his life that almost no other politician offers at the beginning of his political career? (2) He has a political career as an elected official in State and National politics that spans more than 10 years. (3) He has organizational and grass-roots credibility that shames many other well-heeled and long-standing Washington insider candidates. So there's undoubtedly a "paper trail" of policy positions and votes and legislative initiatives and personal experience to review and debate.

What I think Krauthammer and other Obama critics mean when they make such arguments is that Obama has a "paper trail" that is empty of scandal, hidden secrets, and policy positions that are assailable. In other words, he's an already-exposed candidate with a "clean" and forthright record that is eminently transparent to all who take the time to look. But, Krauthammer is a neocon after all, so what can one expect from him? After all, he's just part of a GOP machine that will try to make this the defining theme of difference between the long career and extensive "paper trail" of McCain (though, interestingly, the McCain "paper trail" should and does rub conservatives the wrong way). So, no matter that Krauthammer is playing fast and loose with the truth in an attempt to spin the political discourse in favor of the GOP. But what gives Krauthammer and his conservative ilk currency is not that they are spouting such drivel that's as empty as the imagined "cult of Obama" they lament, but that they can refer to Clintonista liberals such as Paul Krugman (or anti-establishment establishment "progressives" like NOLA's very own Jeffrey) for backup.

The intellectual dishonesty here among the Krauthammers, the Krugmans, and, yes, the Jeffreys of this campaign season is that they intentionally obfuscate or ignore Obama's "paper trail," which is pentiful, wonkish, AND the most progressive, with a visceral and irrational reaction against Obama's "inspirational" qualities.

It's turning into a cult itself, I'd say. The cult of Obamaphiliaphobia.


Eric said...

I think the GOP makes a mistake for attacking Obama directly for relying on message over policy. That's just good politicking, and the GOP would love to have such a candidate. Reagan, to a large degree, was such a candidate (though his rhetoric, while often flowery in its optimism, was almost always rooted in ideology and could be considered more divisive than Obama's).

However, I don't think there is anything wrong with poking fun at his supporters who get all excited about Obama's candidacy without first researching his policy stances. The GOP isn't going to hurt itself by pointing this out, but they should be careful to direct their comments towards this segment of his supporters and not the man himself.

I like Ron Paul quite a bit, but he has a ton of rabid supporters who just support him because he is against the war in Iraq, and would be shocked and dismayed to discover the finer aspects of his domestic policy (which are the parts I generally like about him).

Those supporters do him more harm than good. If I was a Republican political strategist, I would certainly be looking at how this phenomenon might apply towards Obama's campaign.

I don't think it will do much good though. McCain is a weak candidate who is about as inspiring as a bag of rocks. The GOP will have a very tough time overcoming an Obama candidacy should he win the nomination. My best hope is that they will actually drop all the attacks on Obama's message and start going after his policy. That might actually serve to turn people away from him.

Huck said...

Eric - Your point is well taken. I would just comment that the comparison to the "enthusiasm" of Ron Paul supporters versus that of the Obama enthusiasts does not exactly work. Paul enthusiasts aren't just enthused about the message or the candidate's charisma (is Paul even closely as charismatic as Obama?), they're saboteurs about the electoral process, too. Obama supporters are mostly just enthused about Obama's message, his personal appeal, and his delivery. And I'd say a fair number of Obama supporters are also enthused about his policy positions, too. But what Obama supporters are not (at least the vast majority of us are not), are cynical sabateurs of the electoral process. We don't hijack comment threads or engage in internet poll scam schemes. Paul is the candidate for anti-establishment anarchists of the libertarian stripe. And his appeal (and message) is all about this. Obama is so far removed both in rhetoric and policy from this mindset that one cannot claim that his supporters are moved to support him for this reason. Obama's just a likeable guy who knows how to connect with people on the level of reason AND emotion. Nothing wrong with that.

I predict that as more people throw out the "Obama cultist" charge, the more that Obama supporters will lock into their defense and support of the man. And I think if that's the best shot opponents can take at Obama, then the election is already won for President Obama.

jeffrey said...

While "libertarian saboteurs" do indeed make up the hard core of Paul supporters, his wider "cult" is made up mostly of privileged hipsters who like the idea of being "involved" in something they can ignorantly and "youth-orientedly" term a "rEVOLution" while not straying too far from the "Government-is-evil" rhetoric they've heard from their Reagan voter parents most of their lives. But mostly they just think its fun to be in a cool group. (Not plugging my own stupid blog or anything... but I've written about this previously.)

In that sense, they are very much like the Obamaphiles.

But your other points are well taken. I, too, find some of Krugman's attacks on Obama's health care plan to be somewhat off the mark. We keep hearing that the problem is Obama isn't "guaranteeing universal mandatory coverage" which is a problem.

But the important contrast between Obama and Hillary in that regard is that Obama has tried to point out the inherent unfairness of a Hillary-endorsed scheme to implement something like the Massachusetts model which requires everyone to purchase insurance on their own from private insurers (sort of like auto insurance).

This is unacceptable and Obama rightfully points that out. But I still don't see him proposing the kind of single-payer universal insurance we actually need.

Huck said...

jeffrey - very good points. And you're always welcome to plug your blog here. It's by no means a "stupid" blog (and I know you know that), but actually very challenging and controversial. It's a very smart blog, I think, even though we passionately disagree on Obama.

As for the healthcare argument, I am sympathetic to a kind of single-payer universal insurance plan (and so is Obama, btw), but I agree with Obama that it is not a real possibility in our current healtcare market environment. Obama's model, which attempts basically to accomplish what a single-payer universal insurance plan is intended to do. That is, to provide adequate and affordable insurance coverage to all Americans. But his solution is to drive down escalating costs of private insurance by better regulating and reforming the broken HMO and PPO system, while using the savings to fund healthcare insurance for those unable to purchase private insurance. I don't see the problem with a private/public partnership on healthcare insurance, as long as all people in the end get the care that they need and deserve.