No Holding Back.

January 27, 2008

No Holding Back.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Every Sunday CUIP’s president Jacqueline Salit and strategist and philosopher Fred Newman watch the political talk shows and discuss them. Here are excerpts from their dialogue on Sunday, January 27, 2008 after watching “The Chris Matthews Show” and “Meet the Press.”

Salit: The win on Saturday night for Barack Obama in South Carolina was spectacular. A 2-1 margin over Clinton. Eighty percent of the black vote. Forty-two percent of independents. Twenty-five percent of the white vote. He’s delivering on his pledge to create a new – he used this term – “transformative” coalition. At the same time, there’s much conflict going on inside the Democratic Party in response to the Clintons, the Clintons’ tactics, to Clintonian politics. The voters made a clear statement in South Carolina about how they felt about the Bill Clinton “divide and conquer” strategy. It almost seems like the Democratic Party is having a large therapy group now in which different people, different players from different quarters are finally getting the opportunity to say some things to the Clintons about how they feel about their brand of political leadership.

Newman: I think almost a parallel thing is happening in the Republican Party, though particularized to the dynamics there. More traditional commentators would say that this level of ferment is easily explained by the fact that this is a presidential race without an incumbent or establishment frontrunner. That’s true to some extent. And, I also think it’s not entirely accurate. There’s something else going on in the country and within the base of both parties. I don’t know where that winds up. If you’re betting the chalk, you’d say the Clintons will ultimately prevail because they have a long history of ownership of the party and Obama’s campaign is directed, in part, against that entrenchment. In my experience, in contemporary culture, if people who’ve owned something for a long time are matched up against the enthusiasm of the young Turks, the old timers win. The safe bet is that that will happen again. And that means Hillary becomes the nominee. But, the young Turks might…

Salit: …pull it off.

Newman: …might pull it off, win, they might knock down the wall. But if they don’t, if the more reasonable, traditional, safe, conservative outcome occurs, that leaves open a very, very big question of what they do with Obama. That’s an interesting question.

Salit: What the Democrats do with Obama?

Newman: No. What do the Clinton people do with Obama? I’m sure they’ve started to think about that, but it’s not an easy question. The Clintons will quite possibly defeat Obama. But can they destroy him? That is another issue. That’s really delicate. In a way, that’s what Clinton was testing in South Carolina. He didn’t want to just beat Obama in South Carolina. He wanted to destroy him. Clearly, that particular modest experiment failed.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: And, it was well set up, in many ways, for Obama. Even though Clinton was leading in all demographics in South Carolina a few months ago. There are a lot of things that are quite undecideable and quite uncertain in this primary season and in this election. And probably as significant as what Obama is doing is John McCain’s comeback. That’s actually quite astounding politically. It’s a measure, I think, of the American people not knowing exactly where they’re at. They’re looking for something, but it’s not one defined thing. They’re looking for something different. It’s hard to know what that is or where they’ll find it.

Salit: Yes, the fluidity of the situation is remarkable. I thought Obama’s victory talk last night in South Carolina was very strong. And I thought it was a difficult talk to give because he had to do a lot of different things in it. He tried to give his supporters and his growing network of activists around the country a sense of the hardship that lies ahead. There was a lot of euphoria off of the win, because it was so big and such a resounding defeat for the Clintons. But he was cautious – and properly so – in not wanting to let the euphoria entirely dominate the situation.

Newman: Yes. And, he was talking to the 22 states that are voting on Super Tuesday, February 5th. And, not to be cynical or nasty or anti-possibility, but while South Carolina was extraordinary and exciting, it was South Carolina. Who takes South Carolina to be a bellwether of what’s happening around the country? Nobody. In terms of its demographics, the state is not typical. We all remember the days not long ago when nobody even mentioned what happened in South Carolina.

Salit: South Carolina was elevated through a kind of artificial process that included the Democrats wanting to have a state with a significant black population vote early in the line-up.

Newman: And through the nature of the campaign.

Salit: Yes. At the same time, it does create a sense of momentum. But momentum can be metaphysical when your next stop is 22 states that are spread out all across the country with their own local political dynamics playing out in the context of the presidential race.

Newman: Momentum is a real factor, I don’t think it’s metaphysical. But a “sense of momentum” is not the same thing as momentum. That’s the distinction, I think.

Salit: Well put. And I guess the issue is that momentum runs into the hard core on-the-ground realities. On February 5th, for example, Georgia is the only state that has a black population commensurate with the size of the black population in South Carolina. New York is up that day and Illinois is up that day, both of which have significant black populations. But the demographics on February 5th are very different than they were in South Carolina. And, some of these states are open primary states where independents can vote. Some of them are not, they’re closed primary states.

Newman: I agree with all of that, I think you’re 100% right. To me, there’s even a bigger factor. The Clintons have for several decades been operating as a national organization. They have deep roots. Yes, some people have come out against them. John Kerry endorsed Obama. Ted Kennedy is about to endorse him. But at the grassroots level, at the level of base organization, they have people who have followed them for a long time. Obama has people who follow him, but it’s been for a matter of minutes, relatively speaking. He was trying to speak to those people when he said “Yes, We Can.” He’s saying “it can be done.” But if you’re saying “we can do it,” it must mean that you think there are some people out there on your side who are still thinking “we really can’t.” That’s why you’re saying it. That’s the delicate balance. People who have done organizing know something about this.

Salit: How do you read John Edwards’ role? The standard commentary is that he’s going for delegates and he’ll be a force at a brokered convention.

Newman: Yes. I think that’s the story. Has he cut a deal with anybody? Who knows? He’s probably cut a deal with everybody. Everyone’s cut a deal with everybody. He’s got no place else to go. Why shouldn’t he stay? Part of why you stay someplace in life, and in politics, is that you’ve got no place else to go. So you stay. That might sound like a Groucho Marx song. But, I think there’s a lot of truth to that for Edwards.

Salit: Peggy Noonan observed in the Wall Street Journal that she was initially concerned that Obama might be holding back from fully engaging the Clintons in a fight because he was worried that he might destroy the Democratic Party. But, she said, what’s actually happening is that Bill Clinton is the one who’s destroying the party, just as George Bush is destroying the Republican Party.

Newman: Obama’s not holding back. The speech he gave last night in South Carolina was all about the Clintons. That’s not holding back. If you’re holding back, you’re not giving that speech. Obama recognizes – and I think correctly – that that’s the fight they have to have to be in the game. If you’re going up against the establishment elements of your own party, you’ve got to go up against them full force. You can’t hold back. I don’t think he’s going to unnecessarily provoke them. But, he’s got to go up against them because that’s who he’s running against. He has to find the right tone: Hillary, I don’t want to berate you. I know you’re in line to become the first woman president. But, you represent a way of doing politics, which produces a set of decisions which come out of that way of doing politics, which is not where the American people are at. You’re old. Your time has passed.

Salit: Your vote on the war is a product of that very thing that we’re talking about.

Newman: And, says Obama, the way that you’re relating to me is a product of that. This is old-style politics. It’s not even a question of his getting angry. It’s rather him saying to the American people: Take a look at her vote on the war. Take a look at NAFTA. Take a look at triangulation. Take a look at “win at any cost” campaigning. Take a look at all that stuff and you’ll see a picture. It’s not that the Clintons are bad people. They’re Democrats. They’re my friends. I’m a member of this party. But they’re just dead. They’re not alive. They’re not now. They’re not the future. They’re not this generation. And you’ve got to take your shot with that, it seems to me. I think what South Carolina meant to him is that he’s going to take that shot completely.

Salit: I was struck by two things here with respect to the ways in which independents are shaping different aspects of the debate. Obama says: ‘This is not about changing parties in Washington. This is about changing the status quo.’ And even McCain, on “Meet the Press,” says: ‘From time to time, you have to put the interest of your country ahead of the interest of your party.’ This is the independents’ message. Now, I don’t see a situation where the American people, en masse, are ready to get up and walk away from the two major parties. On the other hand, 40% of the country are independents and their statement about partisanship and about its corrosive effect on policy making and on popular democracy is present in the campaigns on both sides, in both the Democratic and Republican primaries.

Newman: Maybe. I don’t completely agree with that. I don’t think the American people are very far from being willing to walk away from the two major parties. I think, as I’ve said, the major reason they’re not doing it is that they don’t know where to walk to. They have no place to go to. They don’t really care much about the two major parties. But who does? It’s those people who have been at the core of these parties, who live their lives around them, who make their money from them or from having a relationship to them. That’s not a bad thing. There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s typically American and that’s what it’s been. And they’re the people who will go out and do the work of getting out the vote for their party. They have deeply rooted ties. But, one comment I would make about this whole thing is that if there is indeed a sea change – as opposed to that simply being made up by Obama’s campaign – I don’t think it’s going to go away, no matter who wins the primary nomination. It’s going to be there. And whoever wins has to figure out what to do with it. That’s real. What is the nature of that sea change? Well, it’s being shaped right now. I think it’s generally more left of center than right of center, more liberal than conservative. And it’s going to be there.

Salit: What’s McCain doing now?

Newman: McCain is staking his run on the U.S. being in a permanent war with Islamic extremism. Now, it’s clear that radical Islamic fundamentalism is going to be around for a very long time. Whether or not that fact should dominate American foreign policy over the next 100 years is another issue. But it’s going to be there. The ultimate question, it seems to me, is what we’re going to do about it. I don’t think McCain answers that question, frankly. He says that we have to recognize that it’s going to be there, which he thinks is enough to carry the argument. But that it’s going to be there says nothing about what we’re going to do about it. He talks about the war against Al Qaeda. But his position, to me, has a softness to it. He’s saying we’re going to defeat Al Qaeda in Iraq, but if this phenomenon of Islamic extremism is going to be there for the rest of the century, where do we go next? What do we do after Iraq, in his view? Does he favor more and more wars like the Iraq war? What is he saying? He’s pinning his primary hopes on ‘I supported the surge and look how well it’s doing.’ Okay. So, the surge worked. Should we elect you president because the surge worked? That’s kind of flimsy stuff. Is he ready to do a version of that all over the world? There has been more success of a diplomatic nature with North Korea over the last several years, than there has been success in Iraq with military intervention. How does he balance that?

But, you have to come back to this. It’s a presidential election with all the normal silliness and insanity that goes with that. And there’s a sea change. The sea change is not only in this country, it’s going on all over the world. For the moment, we’ll have to leave the answer up to the voters. We’ll see who they elect in this mish mash.

Salit: Thanks, Fred.