Is There a Big Bopper in the House?

July 29, 2007

Is There a Big Bopper in the House?

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Every Sunday CUIP’s political director Jacqueline Salit and strategist and philosopher Fred Newman watch the political talk shows and discuss them. Here are excerpts from their dialogue on Sunday, July 29, 2007 after watching “The Chris Matthews Show,” “Meet the Press” and “The McLaughlin Group.”

Salit: The lead story on every show was the Hillary/Obama fight at the CNN/YouTube debate and the follow-up rounds in the days after the debate. This is one description of what the fight was about: New vs. Old, continuity vs. change, war vs. anti-war. How would you define what the fight’s about?

Newman: Obama vs. Clinton/Bush.

Salit: Obama vs. Clinton/Bush. Okay, let’s break that down. What’s the Obama side?

Newman: We don’t quite know, but it’s oppositional to Clinton/Bush on many questions, based on the belief that those years represented a corruption of what American politics should be, and a step backwards domestically and with respect to foreign policy. These were destructive years for American national interests and for the American position in the world, so something has to be dramatically transformed, says Obama. He hasn’t said exactly what. But this is the most interesting debate of the campaign so far. In fact, it’s the only interesting debate of the campaign.

Salit: Agreed. The YouTube exchange was over whether a president should commit to meet with a number of world leaders who are on the list of U.S. enemies. At a rally several days after the debate, and after Clinton accused him of being “irresponsible and naΓ―ve,” Obama said ‘We don’t want a continuation of the policies of Bush/Cheney and we don’t want Bush/Cheney Lite’ – linking Clinton to the Bush policies. That’s the first time he’s done that. So now Obama’s directly challenged Hillary – and Clintonism – which a lot of people have been urging him to do. How does he go further with that?

Newman: He reaches out to independents.

Salit: Okay.

Newman: That’s the political play. That’s the follow-up to this. Unlike Mrs. Clinton, who is a DLC person through and through, who with her husband led a move to the right by the Democratic Party, Obama is saying that the Democratic Party has to move towards progressivism and not Hillary Clinton’s version of progressivism. It has to move towards real progressivism.

Salit: And the country’s move towards being politically independent is a part of that.

Newman: Yes, and Obama has to be very responsive to that.

Salit: Interesting. The way some commentators are framing your point is that Obama has to make his case that he’s genuinely an agent of change. You’re saying the way to do that is you reach out to independents.

Newman: You have to go where the change is taking place.

Salit: To independent voters who are saying we need a new way.

Newman: And to the independent movement.

Salit: Chris Matthews was incredulous that Hillary, to use his phrase, let Obama in the ring. He kept saying ‘Why did she do this? Why did she do this?’ He didn’t really have an answer, but he kept raising the question. That’s your question, too.

Newman: No, I don’t have any question about why she did it. I think she did it because she had to, because Obama had raised an important point. She’s been saying, oh, “inexperience.” But that didn’t fly. So, she needed to be more aggressive. She’s vulnerable. The question is whether anyone who has a chance of beating her is going to take her on.

Salit: And how would you describe her vulnerability now?

Newman: She’s got consistent and high negatives to indicate that she can’t win the presidency. And, if you will, she’s totally in bed with Clintonism. You can’t just say Happy Days Are Here Again and make it all better.

Salit: It was Michael Duffy from Time who defined the debate as Old vs. New, Continuity vs. Change, etc. Others elaborated on that. One pundit observed, ‘Look, Hillary has been trying to project herself as a candidate of change – change from the Bush era. She’s a woman. She calls herself a progressive’ ‘And,’ says Dan Balz of the Washington Post, ‘what Obama has to do is move the bar relative to how you define change.’ In effect, he was saying Obama has to present a more radical framework for how you define change, so that Hillary can’t pass that test. He’s got to put himself out there in such a way that shows, by comparison, that she’s not an agent of change.

Newman: I think he has to do far better than that. He’s got to show, in detail – and I think he can – that she doesn’t stand for change, that she’s never stood for change. She’s stood for what she stood for.

Salit: Winning. Whatever that takes.

Newman: She’s stood for Clintonism. She’s always stood for it and that’s what she still stands for.

Salit: Chuck Todd of The Hotline offered a notable observation on “Meet the Press.” It was in response to the narrative likening Obama’s new politics, his “new way” message of a kind of transcendental “Bring America Together” movement to Ronald Reagan in 1980 and to Gary Hart in 1984. Todd says: ‘The thing about Obama that is threatening with his “new way” message is not simply his capacity to move “new way” white voters, but his capacity to move African American voters.’ Todd pointed out that he is African American, after all. Imagine, he suggested, a coalition between what he calls “whites for change” and black voters. That’s a very formidable coalition.

Newman: Absolutely. That’s the Black/Independent Alliance.

Salit: Exactly. And that’s one of the first times we’ve heard a major league commentator talk about this in such explicit terms. Many independents have seen this – indeed, have been building this – for a long time. So, how’s Obama doing in the black community? I’m not talking about the numbers. How’s he doing politically?

Newman: I think it’s a big fight and it’s still unresolved. He’s got to be more aggressive. He’s got to do the things that we’re urging him to do, for example in the debate currently underway between Lenora Fulani and Al Sharpton. (The Fulani/Sharpton exchanges are available on CUIP’s website:

Salit: Yes.

Newman: Obama has the potential for a great deal of strength at the base level in the black community. But, he’s got all those black Democratic Party elected officials to deal with. He has to get through them in order to reach the base. And that takes some doing. Once again, I think he has to reach out in an independent direction because that’s the component of the black base that is the most inclined towards him politically. He’s got to reach them. If he reaches them, whether it’s in South Carolina or in New York or wherever it is, he’ll benefit enormously from it. But he’s got to do something to accomplish that.

Salit: And, what about the black leaders that are saying to him that he needs to be more “black” in his presentation?

Newman: That would be being more black. He can’t be more black in a traditional sense, because this is not a campaign for traditional values. It’s a campaign for developmental values, for new values, for a new way forward, for new coalitions. He can’t just compete on the level of saying I marched with Dr. King. He didn’t march with Dr. King.

Salit: Right.

Newman: Of course, neither did many of the black leaders who claim they did. But that’s another story.

Salit: Another comment that Chuck Todd made about the dynamics in the race is that the primary is all about Obama. Clinton is the frontrunner. Period. But, the primary’s really about one thing. Barack Obama. With his message, with his organization, with his money, can Obama move the ball down the field and seriously challenge Clinton? The commentators were split on this – and many seemed to think that Hillary was “the winner” this week. John McLaughlin called Obama the winner. But, Todd says, it’s all about Obama.

Newman: I agree. Anyone who really appreciates the fight metaphor and appreciates boxing and other sports, knows it’s always about the contender. It’s not about the champion. The champion is the champion.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: It’s about the person who’s trying to knock the champion out.

Salit: And Obama is still in the ring.

Newman: No matter what you say, he might be in second place, he might not be gaining ground, but he’s still in the ring. And if you’re still in the ring with a heavyweight champion, you can still win the fight. So, he’s there and he’s the story. The question is whether he turns it into a winning story or not. That’s the challenge to Axelrod and to the Obama people; whether they have the courage to go for victory.

Salit: And was this a good week for them?

Newman: This thing has done an enormous amount of good for Obama. He’s shown, as some people said today, that he’s able to fight. It’s not even a question of whether he won or lost. It’s that he was willing to duke it out with Hillary Clinton. If you can’t duke it out Hillary Clinton, it’s really academic whether you can duke it out with the Republican candidate, because you won’t get through the primary if you don’t.

Salit: Right.

Newman: He’s got to do that more, much more. Not frivolously. Not ridiculously. Not foolishly. But when the occasion arises, you’ve got to be ready and willing and able to duke it out with her.

Salit: How did you react to the clip of Clinton spokesperson Howard Wolfson on “Hardball” making a classic Clinton-style play? He says Barack Obama is advocating for a meeting with a Holocaust denier.

Newman: I think Obama’s position in support of direct engagement with Iran holds up more strongly. Obama can say: We spent the whole Second World War with a very progressive president meeting regularly with Stalin, because that’s what had to be done to protect American interests. That created the context for winning the Cold War. You have to do that when you have to do that. In other words, you have to relate tactically and not be afraid that America is going to lose propagandistically. You have to say, this country is not going to lose in a propaganda battle. We have a history of being on the right side, of being the good guys, of standing up, so we’re not afraid. Even Richard Nixon knew he could go to China without fear that he was going to be called a China lover. Obama can say: I can go talk to Castro, I can go talk to Hugo Chavez, I can go talk to Ahmadinejad, without having to worry about people confusing me with them . I can win the propaganda war. I’m not worried about that.

Salit: Watching that moment at the YouTube debate while Obama answered first, I saw Hillary scribbling some notes and my thought was that her formula was Go right on Obama. Don’t go too far right. But go a little to the right.

Newman: I don’t know if it was right or left. I think she was scribbling down Go with he’s not experienced.

Salit: So, on this issue of experience. One analysis goes, ‘The issue with Obama is, basically, if people decide that he’s experienced enough to handle the job, they’ll choose him. They want to choose him, but that’s the issue for them.’ If they decide that he’s not experienced enough, then they’ll go with Hillary and forsake their desire for change on the grounds that the change agent just wasn’t quite experienced enough to handle his position. That’s roughly the psychology of the choice.

Newman: I think the “experience issue” as it’s characterized by the pundits and the candidates and the parties is bogus.

Salit: How so?

Newman: No one is president alone. There is a permanent government. There are hundreds of people who advise. So, it’s not as if electing Obama means that Obama’s going to run out onto the court in his short pants, all by himself. That’s not what’s going to happen. He’s not some starry-eyed 1967 radical. How experienced was Abraham Lincoln? How experienced was George Washington? How experienced was John F. Kennedy? It’s a new job. It’s a new job for everybody who gets it. Even for the vice presidents who move up, it’s a new job.

Salit: Right.

Newman: So experience is not so much an issue given the complicated bureaucratic ways in which the American government works. The real issue is do you or don’t you respond to a call for a genuinely new developmental transformation? Hillary wants to make it into an issue on the grounds that she has the experience. But, as Tony Blankley pointed out, she has no particular experience either.

Salit: That’s a good point.

Newman: What does she have? She’s been a competent senator from New York. What experience has she had in the White House? Well, some of those experiences are not relevant.

Salit: And some of them most people, including her, would rather forget.

Newman: The American people are saying we want something new, but not just any old “new” thing, we want something genuinely new. We want a whole new political approach, because we don’t like what has happened under the Bush years, which is the culmination of the Clinton years, which is the culmination of a lot of things that have been happening for a long time. We want something other than that. Well, if you want something other than that, then experience isn’t the relevant criteria.

Salit: This goes back to my first question about what the fight’s about. As you defined it, and Obama now defines it, it’s about Obama vs. Clinton/Bush.

Newman: That’s the issue. And when Hillary summons up her arrogance and her sarcasm and says, in response to Obama, ‘Well, I’ve never been compared to Bush before. And I’ve certainly never been compared to Cheney!,” Obama can say, It’s not about comparison, it’s about connection. Clinton and Bush and their policies are intimately connected and that’s Hillary’s biggest vulnerability. Obama’s wife wasn’t in the White House triangulating. Hillary’s husband was. And Obama, ultimately, has got to bop Bill Clinton. With nuance. With finesse. But he’s got to give him a big bop, if he wants to win.

Salit: Thank you, Fred.