Obama and the Zeitgeist.

February 11, 2007

Obama and the Zeitgeist.

Sunday, February 11, 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, February 11, 2007 after watching “The Chris Matthews Show,” “Meet the Press” and “The McLaughlin Group.”

Newman: Barack Obama’s candidacy is, potentially, a very big deal for the country. How could it not be very big for an African American man to be running for president? It’s not an abstract political issue. It’s something we’re going to have to be attentive to, hour by hour. I think it’s very complicated.

Salit: Let me see if we can unpackage that a little bit. Would you say that Obama’s candidacy is based on a belief that there is a major sea change going on in American politics?

Newman: Or, if not the belief, the possibility.

Salit: The possibility. Okay. And with the right figure to galvanize it – and Obama believes he’s it – that, to use John McLaughlin’s term, there’s a “new political zeitgeist” in the country.

Newman: And a new base.

Salit: And a new base.

Newman: There’s a new base that can sweep in to power. The practical question, then, is where are the independents relative to that new base?

Salit: Yes.

Newman: I don’t know whether there is an answer right now.

Salit: I don’t know that there is an answer right now. And, I would also say that certainly a part of that base is independents. Insofar as independents have spoken out in a cohesive way over the last 15 years, their statement is close to the statement that Obama is making. In his announcement speech Obama said, ‘I know I haven’t spent a lot of time learning the ways of Washington. But I’ve been there long enough to know that the ways of Washington must change.’ Partisanship, Beltway politics, the alienation of the political establishment of both parties from the American people – those are the characteristics of a very troubled political system. And it has been challenged over the last 15 years, largely by independents. That was part of the message of the Perot movement. That was the Bloomberg Revolution in New York City. And now you have an African American, who’s 45 years old, who comes with a message of a new generation needing to make progressive change – like ending poverty in their lifetimes – and engaging the political gridlock of partisan politics. Your point is that it’s not just about a new generation. It’s about a new political base with a new set of political principles.

Let me ask you a question about Hillary in all of this. If Obama’s candidacy takes off, Hillary Clinton, as the Establishment candidate, is seriously vulnerable. Would you agree?

Newman: Yes. Being the Establishment candidate is simultaneously a blessing and a curse, particularly when there are serious undercurrents that threaten the Democratic Party status quo. The Democratic Party had a nervous breakdown over Ralph Nader’s Green Party candidacy, which got only 2.5% of the vote. Well, this is vastly bigger than the Green Party.

Salit: Right.

Newman: At the same time, the conservatives are not about to pack it in. They’re going to be a strong force.

Salit: Some people argue, as they did on the shows this morning, that the biggest trap for Hillary is to get too close to the left. She’s got to hold on to the center. That was Bill Clinton’s political brilliance. That’s his formula for success. That’s what she has to do. No matter how much she gets hammered by the anti-war voices in the party when she’s out on the stump in New Hampshire, she’s got to hang on to the center.

Newman: But what’s there?

Salit: What’s there at the center?

Newman: It’s all well and good to offer an architecture which urges that she doesn’t go too far to the left, that she stays in the center. But, in the kind of year that at least some people are describing as a “new zeitgeist,” you’ve got to raise the question of what’s going to be at the center.

Salit: Interesting.

Newman: And I think that’s where we come in, specifically, where the progressive wing of the independent movement comes in. The dilemma of the Democrats is always that they have to hold on to the center, and at the same time, hold on to the Left because they’re supposedly, in traditional terms, a left-of-center party.

Salit: Correct.

Newman: This is risky to say – and I may turn out to be a fool for saying this – but I think Bill Clinton is making a miscalculation with his triangulation strategy this year. I don’t think he has the stuff to triangulate. Hip as he likes to be, I think he has an out-of-date reading of where the country is at. In ’92, the Democrats were prepared to “trim their sails” politically, to tack right, in order to win. You add Perot to the mix, and Clinton pulls it off. But I don’t know that this is the same situation. The Democratic base is pulling in another direction, and so is the country as a whole. Obama is trying to tap in to that sea change. I don’t think Bill’s reading it all that well.

Salit: So, John McLaughlin raises the question: ‘Is there a new political zeitgeist in America?’ His argument is that there is and it’s got a lot of the characteristics you and I are pointing to. But Tony Blankley responds, essentially, ‘Don’t believe the hype. The fundamental reality of American politics is that America and Americans are split down the middle.’ It’s a 50/50 country, whatever labels you want to put on that split.

Newman: And, bear in mind, that both could be true.

Salit: Okay.

Newman: Both could be true in the simple-minded sense, philosophically speaking, that the zeitgeist is what’s becoming and the 50/50 split is what’s be-going.

Salit: Okay.

Newman: So, those are the cross-currents. And it calls the question of where the independents broadly, and we, as a certain critical element of the independent movement, fit. One thing that’s in the mix here is that there’s got to be, conceptually speaking, a new concept of an American Left, a new concept of American progressivism. You’ve become an important and independent voice in creating that. When you try to connect the dots for all this stuff, the issue of a new progressivism is at the heart of the so-called “new zeitgeist.”

Salit: On the roundtable on “Meet the Press,” Gwen Ifill brought up the dialogue that’s going on in the media about whether Barack Obama is black enough.

Newman: Her position was wrong. It’s not an issue ‘not to be discussed.’ It’s very much an issue to be discussed.

Salit: Tell me why you think that.

Newman: Why isn’t it an issue for debate? It’s a very important issue and she’s trying to close it down in a nod to traditional liberalism. I think it has to be raised, not as an attack on Obama but as an examination of the dynamics in black politics and the connection between the black political scene and the larger world. But no one responded to Gwen when she raised it.

Salit: Other than David Broder, who agreed with her.

Newman: Of course, David Broder agreed. That’s no small part of why she said it; to get Broder’s validation.

Salit: That’s true.

Newman: But it’s a very important issue.

Salit: What do you think that question means?

Newman: Which question?

Salit: Is Barack Obama “black enough?” What does that mean? Obviously, it’s not a question about skin pigment.

Newman: It has two meanings. One meaning is a pure numbers issue. Is he “black enough” to carry the black voter base? That’s a very important base for a Democratic victory. And believe me, there isn’t a black Democratic Party leader in this country who isn’t thinking about this morning, noon and night. Number two – not totally unrelated, but a different formulation – is this: If you have a black American running for president, is there a prima facie obligation for the Left to support him? Is he “black enough” for that to hold? That’s not just a numbers issue.

Salit: That’s interesting. What’s the answer?

Newman: There are a lot of people trying to walk a fine line in this campaign. That’s his fine line. He’s a New Zeitgeist guy who wants to maintain that he believes in traditional Democratic Party Left values, including what you might call a traditional Black Agenda.

Salit: Correct.

Newman: But, that’s not necessarily what the New Zeitgeist movement believes in. It’s a more diverse, multi-ideological, even post-ideological phenomenon. And where are black people in that zeitgeist?

Salit: Heading independent. Becoming more politically independent, not blank check voting for the Democratic Party.

Newman: And that might mean, for some portion of them, moving towards this new progressivism. That’s part of the challenge that you have. To give life – in concrete ways – to that new independent politic.

Salit: Thanks, Fred.