The Organizer

Bush Administration

David Brooks has a genius for not seeing things even as he looks at them. Today he writes,

Obama emphasizes the connections between people, the networks and the webs of influence. These sorts of links are invisible to some of his rivals, but Obama is a communitarian. He believes you can only make profound political changes if you first change the spirit of the community. In his speeches, he says that if one person stands up, then another will stand up and another and another and you’ll get a nation standing up.

The key word in any Obama speech is “you.” Other politicians talk about what they will do if elected. Obama talks about what you can do if you join together. Like a community organizer on a national scale, he is trying to move people beyond their cynicism, make them believe in themselves, mobilize their common energies.

Nice. But then the Vegetable writes,

His weakness is that he never breaks from his own group. In policy terms, he is an orthodox liberal. He never tells audiences anything that might make them uncomfortable. In the Senate, he didn’t join the Gang of 14, which created a bipartisan consensus on judges, because it would have meant deviating from liberal orthodoxy and coming to the center.

How do you build a trans-partisan coalition when every single policy you propose is reliably on the left?

Because, dear Vegetable, it’s not about ideology.

For the past several years, “bipartisan” has meant “agreeing with Republicans,” with Republican defined as “an ideologically blinkered whackjob who takes marching orders from Richard Mellon Scaife and who would sell out the Constitution in an eyeblink for the sake of more power and some tax cuts.” And the effect on America — nay, the world — of this “bipartisanship” has been devastating.

Now bobbleheads like the Vegetable are trying to redefine “bipartisan” as a requirement that right-wing ideology must be honored and included in all policy decisions, even though a majority of the American people are rejecting it wholesale. And we must do this because, you know, it’s nice. It’s like when you were seven and your mother made you share your toys with Cousin Maggie even after she deliberately popped the heads off all your Ken dolls.

Brooks’s idea is that, out of some sense of etiquette, politics and policies coming out of Washington must honor some ideological mean. Obama’s idea is that government ought to be responding to what a majority of Americans want it to do.

To me, that’s always been the foundation of progressivism — government that genuinely responds to the will of We, the People. It’s not about loyalty to a menu of policies like cutting or raising taxes or growing or shrinking government. If We, the People, genuinely want to starve government of tax revenues so it can be drowned in a bathtub, fine. If the majority really want our domestic needs ignored for the sake of becoming an unstoppable imperialist might, then so be it.

I have never believed a majority of Americans really wanted those things, though. I think for a time large numbers of people responded to those ideas because, as our national political culture and discourse had been hijacked by right-wing goons, those were presented as the only legitimate ideas patriotic Americans were supposed to have. But I think only a minority of badly socialized malcontents were fully committed to the right-wing agenda.

I wrote yesterday that I believed the mantle of “inevitability” that Hillary Clinton wore these past several years is part of her problem. It fed into the notion that Washington, and the national leadership of both parties, are more powerful than we are, and that we must accept whatever they choose to give us. The Obama phenomenon comes from a growing realization that we shouldn’t have to put up with this.

Many people have pointed out that Obama’s stated positions on policy are vague. I disagree with his approach to health care. But just as his appeal is not about ideology, it’s also not about policy. It’s about democracy that’s not in name only. As Digby wrote the other day,

When people say they want change it’s not because they are tired of “partisan bickering” (which basically consists of derisive Republican laughter.) They’re sick of a government that does exactly the opposite of what they want it to do.

The experience of the past several years is that Republicans expect to be congratulated for making government do the exact opposite of what you want it to do. Democrats may express regret for it, but government still does the exact opposite of what you want it to do. Senator Clinton seems to have found a niche in this environment, churning up a storm of little policies and positions that are incrementally better than what Republicans propose. But she’s not asking the fundamental question — why do we have to put up with the wingnuts and their failed policies at all?

Why can’t we just push Cousin Maggie down the stairs, so to speak, and be done with this nonsense?

I suspect the Obama surge isn’t about Obama. I think it’s about long-growing, pent-up frustration with unresponsive government. Obama is becoming the rallying point for people who want real change, dammit, not promises and apologies.

So maybe he is vague about what he might do as President. But it’s not his plans that matter, but ours.

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  1. myiq2xu  •  Jan 8, 2008 @11:33 am

    There is a military maxim that says “no battle plan survives contact with the enemy.”

    We could say in politics that “No proposal survives contact with Congress.”

    Why should Obama be overly specific when all that would do is give his opponents the opportunity to nit-pick?

    Even if he wins and submits proposed legislation to Congress that is eventually passed, it will not look the same by the time they are done with it.

  2. WereBear  •  Jan 8, 2008 @12:08 pm

    Why should Obama be overly specific when all that would do is give his opponents the opportunity to nit-pick?

    I’ve come to feel (rightly or wrongly) that this is his strategy. I’m a big fan of doing what works. Let him promise to fix it. Now is not the time to have a three level outline of how it works. Besides, that’s not the way to get elected.

    Wonks don’t win. At least, they don’t win big enough to keep the election from being stolen. (Gore & Kerry. Both wonks. Both drawing the margin of victory thin enough to steal.)

  3. david d  •  Jan 8, 2008 @12:15 pm

    Maha says:
    “So maybe he is vague about what he might do as President. But it’s not his plans that matter, but ours.”

    myiq2xu says:
    “Why should Obama be overly specific when all that would do is give his opponents the opportunity to nit-pick?”


    All aboard Barack Obama’s Smooth Talk Express… “No attitude, just platitudes!”

    Good grief, once-intellectual voices are devolving into gibberish over that guy.

  4. k  •  Jan 8, 2008 @12:19 pm

    Obama is using broad statements delivered in preacher cadence to get to his audience. Hillary is saying I am really competent, Edwards is saying I really care about delivering you from the corporate nightmare. Hillary is being taken to task because she is female ie “be this way , no that way, don’t be too this, don’t be too that” keep her on eggshells trying to please. No one is asking Obama to please. But he is making individuals feel they can change things if they bother to get up and vote. For that he is to be commended, and I’m glad to see a younger generation. I don’t want McCain because I’m tired of Vietnam being discussed- it was over in 1975. I wish Obama would be scrutinized and asked to explain his policies in a forum that does not play to oratory, to get a better measure of the man. I also want to know who the candidates will surround themselves with and who they will fill government with: political hacks, operatives, ideologues and kiss ups like Bush has or people who might be interested in doing the business of Government instead of the party line. Because that is what affects each of us. Every Chairman Martin of the FCC, every FDA director, Attorney General, etc the jobs that really affect us and the application of the Constitution on which it all rests.

  5. maha  •  Jan 8, 2008 @12:37 pm

    All aboard Barack Obama’s Smooth Talk Express… “No attitude, just platitudes!”

    I’ve said for years that choosing a presidential candidate solely on his policy proposals is dumb. Because, if you are paying attention, very little of what candidates promise are actually things that presidents alone deliver. They are things that Congress delivers.

    And if you live long enough, you notice that very little of what candidates promise work out the way they promise it. I voted for Bill Clinton in 1992 in part because he promised to do something about the growing health care mess. He was elected And what happened? Nothing got done, because people weren’t behind it yet.

    Even though it broke my heart when Al Gore was defeated in 2000, I think if Gore had been elected he’d have spent all his energies fighting off the wingnuts, and little of what he might have wanted to do would have happened.

    I’m saying that at this point in history it’s more important to get progressives fired up and empowered and unified than it is to elect someone who has a briefcase full of bulleted lists.

  6. joanr16  •  Jan 8, 2008 @1:18 pm

    Brooks’s “Gang of 14” reference made no sense, as I remembered the incident, so I refreshed my memory:

    I was right; Brooks’s point doesn’t make sense. Jeez, look who the Gang’s seven Democrats are (in fact, two of them– Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson– are Republicans in all but name). Senator Obama would have no reason on earth to join with them– and he should be proud he didn’t, as the compromise helped put that crooked skeeze Alito on the Court. Senator Clinton “didn’t join the Gang of 14” either, so why did Brooks even bring it up?

    Oh, right… vegetable.

  7. julia  •  Jan 8, 2008 @2:30 pm

    It’s entirely possible that I’m being too cynical here, but given that the dominant winger narrative on the Senator has him going to a black-supremacist church despite being a muslim, is it really likely that the “his own group” that Brooks is saying Obama can’t see past is liberals?

  8. Bonnie  •  Jan 8, 2008 @2:30 pm

    Brooks and all these other republicans who hate taxes should be kept from using anything that exists solely because of taxes. The first place to ban them is the highway and road systems of America. Then, there are all those corporations who somehow get our tax dollars. Let’s stop that now.

    If I remember correctly, the gang of 14 involved when the Repugs were threatening the nuclear option for filibusters. Now, that they are the filibustering group, why don’t the Dems threaten the nuclear option?

  9. moonbat  •  Jan 8, 2008 @2:30 pm

    Your opening line, David Brooks has a genius for not seeing things even as he looks at them. is true of any ideologue. Since we’ve been surrounded by conservative ideologues these last few years, we’ve become especially skilled at outing them for their favorite and pernicious blind spots, which they cling to like a child to his precious Teddy. It’s almost routine now, whereas twenty years ago, I at least was tongue tied and stymied by their almost logic-like babblings.

    I don’t know what it will take to dethrone Brooks, Kristol, and Jonah Goldberg from their high thrones of punditry. This country will have to learn, probably the hard way, and probably too late, that there is a price for living in unreality as these over-ripe, highly paid vegetables do. The problem is that this price will largely be borne not by the pay masters of Brooks et al, but by those too unwilling or uneducated to see through them, and this is by design.

    The right has done all it could to plunder the commons of this country during its rule, and this includes the common reality and even the very language and the meaning of words, crippling us from coming together, let alone moving forward. They’re all about divide and conquer, and then pillage. Tools like Brooks, installed in one of the country’s top newspapers are one of their main instruments in this warfare, in the deliberate contamination and destruction of information and discourse.

  10. julia  •  Jan 8, 2008 @2:33 pm

    joanr16, the whole point of the gang of 14 is that they were silverbacks. Obama had no seniority. He wasn’t eligible to join.

  11. Virginia  •  Jan 8, 2008 @4:57 pm

    I think a lot of us are just very, very nervous about Hillary’s prospects in the general election. A lot of us Democrats had fallen for the inevitability line and were more or less resigned to Hillary being the candidate, even though we knew it was a huge gamble which would no doubt lead to another photo finish and maybe another squeaker loss.

    The fact that Obama suddenly appears as a viable alternative goes a long way towards explaining the surge. It feels like there’s a huge sigh of relief that maybe it won’t be Hillary after all. It’s this much more than any real preference for Obama’s message over Hillary’s

  12. Doug Hughes  •  Jan 8, 2008 @5:52 pm

    $$$$$$$ FOLLOW THE MONEY $$$$$$$$$
    then go to ‘Presidential’ tab at the top.
    Look at Donor Demographics,
    look at % of contribuors $2300
    top donors & what companies contributors are from
    look at the companies that seem to be on EVERY candidate list

    Adertising is the ‘gun’ of campaigns. The profile of contributors is the fingerprint on the gun. Money is sincere. You will learn a whole LOT about the race in 30 minutes of browsing. Educate yourself. The observations you make would be worth a blog of comments itself. (Hint, Barbara)

  13. Kathy Miller  •  Jan 8, 2008 @7:43 pm

    Sure Obama is impressive, but so is Edwards. I think he has as much of a chance to win the nomination as Obama. I wish both could win. They could be what this country needs. As for me, I’ll support Edwards even if I have to write him in.

  14. erinyes  •  Jan 9, 2008 @6:06 am

    Richardson is the best choice IMHO.
    He won’t make it, he didn’t kiss the proper behinds.
    The top three are action heroes, diplomacy is soooo boring…
    Blowing shit up, now THAT’S entertainment!