Thoughts About Partisan Politics

I’m reading several conservatives and libertarians who are taking offense to this particular passage from Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address yesterday:

On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.

Blogger Jay Reding responds this way:

Like hell we have. Every politician plays hardball. Partisanship is inevitable in a free society, and that’s a feature, not a bug. In order for this statement to make sense, Obama must believe 1) that he is somehow above politics, which is transparently ludicrous for any politician to say; and 2) that our politics would be better if we jettisoned the “worn out dogmas” that he doesn’t like.

Now, maybe because I’m a Democrat that supported Obama I’m not in the best position to evaluate his remarks, but this seems like an almost intentional misreading of what was actually said. Let’s break it down a bit:

“… end to the petty grievances and false promises…” – This isn’t a call to end partisanship, but it IS a call to end the partisan witch hunts, like the U.S. attorneys scandal, that played themselves out over the last eight years. It’s also one thing to say you’re going to govern as a “uniter, not a divider” but then pay little attention to those who don’t share your views. To me, Obama is saying he’s going to demonstrate his inclusiveness through his actions (retaining Gates at Defense and selecting LaHood as his transportation secretary and giving conservatives a real voice to shape legislation such as TARP are good starts). Will Obama always make promises that he can keep? Of course not, but I believe he’s actually going to give conservatives a fair shake.

“…the recriminations and worn out dogmas…” – Again, this is more about being pragmatic than anything else. Obama isn’t a dogmatic liberal; rather, he’s a pragmatic one (something that actually ought to give conservatives heart). As Ryan Lizza wrote in his exceptional profile of Obama last year:

Like many politicians, Obama is paradoxical. He is by nature an incrementalist, yet he has laid out an ambitious first-term agenda (energy independence, universal health care, withdrawal from Iraq). He campaigns on reforming a broken political process, yet he has always played politics by the rules as they exist, not as he would like them to exist. He runs as an outsider, but he has succeeded by mastering the inside game. He is ideologically a man of the left, but at times he has been genuinely deferential to core philosophical insights of the right.

This is a theme that has come up with Obama again and again, starting with his time at the Harvard Law Review and running through his time in Chicago and the U.S. Senate (lets not forget that one of Obama’s most important mentors in the senate is Republican Dick Lugar). He’s shown that he will work with people who do not come from the same place he does ideologically (contrary to claims otherwise).

Moving on, though, there ARE some tired old dogmas that have crumbled beneath the weight of plunging stock prices and fiscal reality. Should we continue to believe in the power of wholly unregulated markets?
Or that tax cuts pay for themselves and always raise revenues? When you have the former high priest of the free market saying during Congressional testimony that he’d found a flaw in his worldview as it relates to the free market, maybe it’s time to examine the wreckage for clues.

But let it be said that there are liberal shibboleths that will have to be discarded as well. We can’t always throw more money after every social program and say all is well. Personal responsibility, a hallmark of conservatism for some time, has its place and Obama talked at length yesterday about its role in fixing what ails us. If conservatives have shown too much faith in the free market, liberals have often shown too little. In an article from last August, the New York Times David Leonhardt attempted to describe Obama’s views on the marketplace:

Obama, when I asked him, agreed that his years surrounded by Chicago School thinking affected him. He tends to assign his motives to more intimate narratives, though, and he said that his grandmother, a high-school graduate who rose to become the vice president of a bank and was the family’s main breadwinner, had the biggest impact. “She had to think very practically about, How do you make money?” he told me. “How does the system work? That led me to have an orientation to ask hardheaded questions. During my formative years, there was still ideological competition between a social-democratic or even socialist agenda and a free-market, Milton Friedman agenda. I think it was natural for me to ask questions of both sides and maybe try to synthesize approaches.”

There is plenty of evidence that this synthesis isn’t merely a part of a candidate’s inevitable tack to the center for a general election. In Obama’s memoir, “Dreams From My Father,” he sympathetically recounts a conversation he had with a Kenyan farmer, in which the man complains both about rich people who won’t pay their fair share of taxes and about burdensome government regulations on coffee growing. In Obama’s second book, “The Audacity of Hope,” he goes further: “Reagan’s central insight — that the liberal welfare state had grown complacent and overly bureaucratic, with Democratic policy makers more obsessed with slicing the economic pie than with growing that pie — contained a good deal of truth.”

The partial embrace of Reaganomics is a typical bit of Obama’s postpartisan veneer. In a single artful sentence, he dismissed the old liberals, aligned himself with the Bill Clinton centrists and did so by reaching back to a conservative icon who remains widely popular. But the words have significance at face value too. Compared with many other Democrats, Obama simply is more comfortable with the apparent successes of laissez-faire economics.

Sunstein, now on the faculty at Harvard, has a name for this approach: “I like to think of him as a ‘University of Chicago’ Democrat.”

It’s a useful label. Today’s Democratic consensus has moved the party to the left, and on issues like inequality and climate change, Obama appears willing to be even more aggressive than many fellow Democrats. From this standpoint, he’s a true liberal. Yet he also says he believes that there are significant parts of Reaganism worth preserving. So his policies often involve setting up a government program to address a market failure but then trying to harness the power of the market within that program.

From everything I’ve read about Barack Obama, I’ve never gotten the impression that he has a closed mind, or that he is scared of ideas that don’t jibe with his own. I don’t think Obama, as a former constitutional law professor, is a man afraid of vigorous, informed debate (if he was, he’d surely be trying to enact the “Fairness Doctrine”…which he’s not). What I think Obama was saying in that passage, or rather, what he’s hoping for, is that we can actually, “disagree without being disagreeable”, though I should say it still makes me shake my head when I hear people say Obama won’t do things his “base” won’t agree with; how quickly they forget about Rick Warren or FISA.

In any case, I fully expect that if conservatives come to the table with unclenched hands, they’ll get a chance to air the ideas and Obama will listen freely and respectfully to what they have to say. Ideas do matter and debate is important…I just think Obama is trying to elevate the tone a bit. Let’s at least give him a chance to do so.

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~ by uvasig on January 22, 2009.

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