Friday, August 15, 2008

A recipe for disaster, maybe



My recent exchange with Darcy (motivated in part by his post on a Fafblog satire), got me thinking about the ways in which the Obama campaign may already be seriously compromised by the 2.0 phenomenon (my term for the version of the candidate that has been most apparent during the post-primary period) and the resultant dissatisfaction from the left. It's a situation Amiri Baraka -- a dude I don't always agree with -- compares to the Weimar Republic pre-Hitler. Anyway: my own comments in the referenced discussion were motivated not by a desire to nay say protest against apparent policy shifts, but to express concerns about a potential "vote drain" that could cost the Democrats this election. Again.

To recap my view: an Obama victory in November is by no means a sure thing. Depending on which polls you read, this could even be another nail-biter, and we all know what that means. Keep in mind too that there are plenty of first-time voters engaged in the process this time around (many of whom were inspired by Obama in the first place) -- folks for whom the role Nader played in 2000 is nothing more than a historical footnote. Given this context, and given my sense that a McCain administration would put us in a world of shit far beyond anything Obama could create even if he were the antichrist -- the goal, as I see it, should not be to simply squeak by: we need to aim for a landslide, so as to minimize the potential for shenanigans. Every vote will tell.

Of course, when we start to get into the nitty gritty of actually figuring out how many liberals or progressives openly intend not to vote for Obama, there's a good possibility that we're talking about a "fringe" phenomenon. Still -- call me crazy, but I think one should never underestimate the power of a fringe. Especially a fringe with laptops. (Jack Abramoff was on the fringe once. Paul Wolfowitz was on the fringe once.)

As I see it, there are two very real and unpredictable fissures on the left. The first should be obvious, and will probably either flare up or peter out come the convention. That's right: I'm talking about the continued disgruntlement of Clinton people. If you thought that issue went away after the meeting in Unity (with its celebratory media coverage), think again. This continued disgruntlement has been wrongly reported as an Obama-Clinton feud (I suppose that makes for a juicier story), but is really much more about the discontent of Clinton supporters (who Clinton, to her credit, seems to be genuinely trying to rein in). The prime mover in this area is the PAC known as People United Means Action, aka "Party Unity My Ass," aka PUMA. They appear to be at least marginally organized, and they really really really want to make something happen in Denver.



Of course there is some suspicion that PUMA is actually a front movement started by Republicans, which may in part explain why they end up on Fox News so frequently. I'm not sure I believe that, actually, but I don't see how the origins of the group makes much difference one way or the other -- the potential to play havoc with the election is fairly high regardless.

In any case, the other fissure is traceable to the progressive backlash against Obama's move to the center on FISA and other issues. To the extent that this is a full-on rejection of the Obama campaign, it does not appear to be nearly as organized a "movement" as the PUMAs. Again, we're probably talking about the fringe -- but it's early, and there is always the possibility of some sort of dovetailing maneuver by the Fall.

Consider Progressives Against Obama, who articulate their unhappiness this way:

This is no time for quibbling about the best way to show opposition to Barack Obama's anti-progressive policies. So, we're not demanding one pure form of opposition to Obama in 2008. We realize that it's a difficult thing for progressives to oppose the Democratic nominee for President, after seven long, disastrous years under Republican George W. Bush.

When we say we that we're progressives against Barack Obama, that means that we're opposing Barack Obama because he's not a progressive candidate, and our opposition comes from a progressive point of view. We do not accept the validity of right wing attacks against Barack Obama, or the bizarre, racist conspiracy theories that come from the evangelical fringe. We are progressives first, and refuse to sacrifice our progressive values for the sake of being either for or against Obama.

Supporting John McCain is not an honest option either. We oppose John McCain because he opposes progressive values.

The following are among the different ways to honestly express progressive opposition to Barack Obama, and we honor them all without seeking fights between these various positions:

* Criticism of Barack Obama, with the intention to vote for one of Obama's progressive opponents - from the Green Party or Ralph Nader, for instance.

* Criticism of Barack Obama, with the intention to vote for no presidential candidate at all.

* Criticism of Barack Obama, while still intending to vote for Obama in the end, campaigning for Obama and giving Obama donations.

* Criticism of Barack Obama, while refraining from campaigning, donating or volunteering for Obama, with the intention of voting for Obama in the end.

* Criticism of the right wing policies that Barack Obama has supported, without any overt criticism of Barack Obama himself.

You choose your own path. What's important is that we oppose the anti-progressive positions that Barack Obama has begun to promote in his ham-handed attempt to triangulate, as the worst Democratic and Republican politicians have done in the past.


Actually, I think this is precisely the time to "quibble" about the best way to protest against Obama's "anti-progressivism." (If not now, when?)

* * * * *


As you might expect, evidence of this fissuring process can be found all over the internets -- much of it haphazard and fractured in a way so typical of online conversations. Consequently, that evidence is also difficult to quantify. Still, it is frustratingly easy to dig through comment threads and turn up remarks like these (for example):

Thanks a lot guys. You finally figured out that Obama is a liar. You guys make me sick. You tore down Clinton because she wouldn’t pander to you. You liked the guy who promised everything. If you had just barely scratched the surface you would have realized he was full of it.

If you really care about this now, join PUMA PAC and work to get Clinton nominated at the convention.

If not, you are all just whiney children. As Obama would say, “Where else are you going to go?”.

This life-long Dem will be voting McCain. Fuck all you faux-gressives. You don’t have any credibility left. (1)


I won’t vote for Obama because my conscience will not allow me to after his vote for the FISA Amendment.

I won’t campaign against him because McCain is much worse.

It is plain to see i have no options in this race.

I will sit this election out, but the fight to repeal FISA goes on. (1)


Public Service Announcement: You don’t need political analysts; just read the news. Singular lines of news suffice at times. You are now in the post-analytic age. Here is a one-liner from a Yahoo! News piece on the recent passage of the Snoops-R-Us bill in the Senate: “Obama ended up voting for the final bill, as did Specter.”

That one sentence tells you all you need to know about where Obama and most Democrats stand on the issue of civil liberties and what political leaders are not willing to do to protect those liberties. Now, that should be enough to make you withdraw your support from Obama’s presidency — if, that is, you still have illusions about the Democrats in general, and Barak Obama in this round of Anybody-But-Bush/McCain.

“What?” says you, “And let McCain win the election?”

To that it must be said: What on earth is the difference when the Democratic presidential nominee, during the election campaign, votes in the same way as a right-wing Republican not just on any bill, but on a bill curtailing people’s civil liberties? (1)


"I will be voting for a third party candidate in November since neither of these two corporate major party candidates are progressive. I think it is very important to remember that 'the lesser of two evils' is still evil." (2)

"Obama is sending true progressives flocking to Nader." (2)

"I was voting for Hillary Clinton but now this is the first time in 44 years, I will vote for a republican." (2)

"Obama lost my vote when he began cheerleading the war in Afghanistan and got on his knees before the right-wing death-squad Cuban community in Florida, telling them the embargo would not be lifted. [...] Obama doesn't get it. I'm voting 3rd party." (2)


(My sources are pretty random, but they also turned up pretty quickly in a google search: 1. this post on the launch of PAO, which appeared on the Repeal FISA site a few weeks ago and 2. this rather unflattering piece on Obama by Adolph Reed, published in the Progressive just before Obama clinched the nomination.)

Then there are (of course) the blogs. For the curious, one particularly rich hub is Just Say No Deal, which has the longest blogroll I've seen in quite some time (it also has a godawful site design). Go ahead, click around. My "favorite" of the linked sites is "Pagan Power," who recently picked up Jesse Jackson's meme and ran a poll asking "would you like to cut off Obama's nuts too"? (Dude, I don't even want to cut off John McCain's nuts. Can we grow up please?)

And so down and down the road we go. Where does it lead? Nobody knows.



Addendum: Perhaps Kris Tiner knows. He just published a compelling thought piece on the broader cultural context for / relevance of the Obama candidacy -- plus a sober assessment of the sort of evil horse shit the left is up against this time around. Go read.

9 comments:

DJA said...

Andrew,

I share your concern that the election will be a close one, but I think you are worrying about the wrong things.

PUMA aren't just a GOP front group (this is documented), they a fucking joke. Trust me, they aren't going make the slightest blip in Denver. They are completely inconsequential. Yeah, they're on Fox. You know how many Fox News aficionados would even consider voting for Obama under any circumstances? Republicans have more to fear at their convention from the Ron Paul Revolution folks.

And I've never heard of "Progressives Against Obama" before today. Their website has almost no content and looks like it was slapped together in less than five minutes. Trust me, the election does not hinge on these people.

The reality is, the youth vote is going to be huge, and it's going to be overwhelmingly for Obama. There are always a handful of young, self-indulgent narcissists who see voting (or withholding their vote) as an act of precious, precious individual self-expression, to be kept completely unsullied by the cold hard realities of pragmatism and instrumental rationality. But those people are going to be fewer in number this year than in any election in living memory.

As I see it, the real issue is this (and here I am cribbing from Rachel Maddow): if this election turns into a referendum on Barack Obama, he's gonna lose. The Obama campaign needs to put the spotlight on McCain and show him in all his lying, cheating, pandering, flip-flopping, , 8-house-owning horribleness. They need to go after him on his strength, his "maverick" reputation that the lazy media keeps reinforcing. And they need to go after him HARD... especially after the convention. If they can shift the focus onto McCain and get the media to look at him with some goddamn scrutiny for once, they win. If they keep playing away games ("no really, Obama's not a Muslim, he's not an elitist, he's not the antichrist, we swear...") they're gonna lose. PUMA is a minor distraction at best.

Andrew Durkin... said...

Hey Darcy:

Thanks much for this -- compelling as always.

I think you are worrying about the wrong things.

Well, don't get me wrong -- it's not like I'm not worrying about all the other things there are to worry about in this election.

PUMA aren't just a GOP front group (this is documented), they are a fucking joke. Trust me, they aren't going make the slightest blip in Denver. They are completely inconsequential.

"Completely inconsequential" strikes me as a bit of an exaggeration just on principle, but you are probably right that neither PUMA nor the PAO are going to present major problems for Obama in this election. So I'm not advocating widespread panic here. As I said in my post: "there's a good possibility that we're talking about a 'fringe' phenomenon."

You are also probably right that PUMA is a GOP front group (and thanks for that link). But again, as I said in my post: "I don't see how the origins of the group makes much difference one way or the other -- the potential to play havoc with the election is fairly high regardless."

In other words, what I'm really talking about here is the effect of a discourse. So, for instance, assuming we can avoid the sort of simplistic "feminists vs. Democrats" argument that some of the PUMA rhetoric sets up -- is it really so outlandish to imagine, given the length, severity, and ugliness of the primary campaign, that there is some group of unhappy Clinton supporters (men and women) who might feel inspired simply by the idea that such a group even exists (whether it does or not, and whether or not they even join)? I mean, a few months ago, we were talking about the possibility of a "bloodbath on the convention floor." Did all that antipathy just evaporate?

Trust me, the election does not hinge on these people.

[...] There are always a handful of young, self-indulgent narcissists who see voting (or withholding their vote) as an act of precious, precious individual self-expression, to be kept completely unsullied by the cold hard realities of pragmatism and instrumental rationality. But those people are going to be fewer in number this year than in any election in living memory.


What do we lose by qualifying / keeping an eye on that? Again, what you're saying here has a high probability of being correct. But why should that translate into a conviction that the behavior of any portion of the electorate can just be taken for granted? After the shit that has happened in the last eight years -- much of which would have seemed like political science fiction to me in the 90s, even compared to the worst presidencies of the 20th century -- "trust" is just not enough to go on. Which, again, is not to say I'm advocating all-out paranoia (or, worse, inertia). The bottom line for me is that we need to be rigorously circumspect. And this is a country that does many things well, but by and large, being circumspect is not one of them.

At the very least: what is the cost of raising these questions about discontent within the left? If the argument is wrong, the worst that happens is that those who made it look like fools. I'd be willing to own that if and when the time comes (it wouldn't be the first time).

As I see it, the real issue is this (and here I am cribbing from Rachel Maddow): if this election turns into a referendum on Barack Obama, he's gonna lose. The Obama campaign needs to put the spotlight on McCain and show him in all his lying, cheating, pandering, flip-flopping, , 8-house-owning horribleness. They need to go after him on his strength, his "maverick" reputation that the lazy media keeps reinforcing. And they need to go after him HARD... especially after the convention. If they can shift the focus onto McCain and get the media to look at him with some goddamn scrutiny for once, they win. If they keep playing away games ("no really, Obama's not a Muslim, he's not an elitist, he's not the antichrist, we swear...") they're gonna lose.

Yeah. When I can, I've been following RM's argument on this too, and I think it has a lot of merit (as does much of what she says).

My feeling is that this is a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't situation. I don't know what you mean by "go after him hard," for instance, but Maddow seems to be waiting for Obama to out-McCain McCain -- as if the "it's like they're proud of their ignorance" quip doesn't sum up the whole election, and as if what is actually said in any given ad / speech is somehow not at the mercy of the media's interpretation of it.

W/r/t the referendum thing, the challenge lies in the fact that for much of the national electorate -- so-called "low information voters" -- there is still a sense that Obama is an unknown. So to some extent he's got to spend more time in self-definition mode than McCain -- though I'll agree that this sort of thing requires an assertive tone, and not merely a defensive one.

For many people, the very thing that made Obama an attractive candidate in the first place was the sense that he approached the whole business of politics like an intelligent, rational adult -- as opposed to a school-yard bully. Pundits (Maddow included, if I recall) made the same argument for him to get down in the mud during the primaries -- if he truly had, I think things would have turned out a bit differently. Of course, McCain is a whole other kind of challenge. But on the other hand (and this has been overlooked, I think) Obama ain't John Kerry.

DJA said...

Hi Andrew,

I mean, a few months ago, we were talking about the possibility of a "bloodbath on the convention floor." Did all that antipathy just evaporate?

I was only worried about that outcome if Hillary decided not to drop out, and to take her fight all the way to the convention. Much to her credit, she didn't do that, and so yes, I think the situation is largely defused. The prominent speaking roles given to both her and Bill in Denver would seem to augur a big unifying lovefest.

What is the cost of raising these questions about discontent within the left?

Well, on your personal blog? Not much. It's your blog, I ain't gonna tell you what to write. But in a larger sense, there's only so much time before the election and it's a question of priorities. I would like to see the Obama campaign take a brief moment to bask in the post-convention glow, then come out with guns blazing right up until Election Day. I see anything else as a distraction.

(I mean, if you think groups like PUMA and POA are a problem, do you mean they are a problem the campaign should address in some way? If so, what do you think they should do? Hillary's already smacked down PUMA.)

he challenge lies in the fact that for much of the national electorate -- so-called "low information voters" -- there is still a sense that Obama is an unknown.

Dude, for low-information voters, McCain is an unknown. There has been wall-to-wall saturation coverage of Obama since January. But people who are not political junkies don't know the first thing about what John McCain is really like. All they have are the received narratives that he's a heroic Vietnam POW and a maverick straight-talker with the experience to lead. If people knew more about what a McCain presidency would really be like, there's no reason why his popularity wouldn't be down there with W's. The media keeps telling people McCain is a "known quantity," because he is to them, they have been covering him for years. But people who only pay attention to politics for a couple of months every four years don't really know much of anything about him.

General elections are different than primaries. I had no desire for Obama to go hard negative on Hillary during the primary. But you don't win a general election by playing only defense, especially when you are up against a guy who gets unbelievable deference from the traditional media. If you want them to look at McCain critically, you must to go on the attack.

Negative campaigning works. McCain's attack ads have been shameless and awful, but they have clearly hurt Obama -- check the trends at electoral-vote.com. Obama's people are going to have to work harder if they want the "McCain = Bush" meme to stick. But they've got to be prepared to take some heat for this -- when people like Wes Clark point out that getting shot down in a plane doesn't make you qualified to be president, you should have their back. Not stab them in it.

Andrew Durkin... said...

Thanks, Darcy!

I was only worried about that outcome if Hillary decided not to drop out, and to take her fight all the way to the convention. Much to her credit, she didn't do that, and so yes, I think the situation is largely defused. The prominent speaking roles given to both her and Bill in Denver would seem to augur a big unifying lovefest.

That's fine, but I'm not talking about what's happening at the leadership level, and I think it's a mistake to assume that this stuff only happens in a top-down direction. I agree with you that the big shots have done a pretty good job of trying to make amends publicly. But I was talking about something that is much harder to measure or observe -- the mood of the so-called "rank and file." As we both know, political people are passionate people.

I would like to see the Obama campaign take a brief moment to bask in the post-convention glow, then come out with guns blazing right up until Election Day. I see anything else as a distraction.

(I mean, if you think groups like PUMA and POA are a problem, do you mean they are a problem the campaign should address in some way? If so, what do you think they should do?)


(!) Did I somehow give you the impression that I was offering this post as campaign advice? Perish the thought! I'm just doing what I always do -- making half-assed cultural observations from my little corner of the country. And actually, since so much of this comes down to the interplay of language, images, sound -- discourse -- if I was going to be giving advice to anybody, it would be to the media. (I'd tell them to just shut the fuck up and let the cameras roll, as they do on C-SPAN.)

Besides, even if this movement somehow grows between now and November, I don't think there's much that the Obama campaign could do about it.

Dude, for low-information voters, McCain is an unknown. There has been wall-to-wall saturation coverage of Obama since January. But people who are not political junkies don't know the first thing about what John McCain is really like. All they have are the received narratives that he's a heroic Vietnam POW and a maverick straight-talker with the experience to lead. If people knew more about what a McCain presidency would really be like, there's no reason why his popularity wouldn't be down there with W's. The media keeps telling people McCain is a "known quantity," because he is to them, they have been covering him for years. But people who only pay attention to politics for a couple of months every four years don't really know much of anything about him.

Right. But most people will happily confuse what they actually know about a candidate with what they think they know. They think they know McCain, but they also think they don't know Obama -- his "celebrity" notwithstanding (actually, his celebrity may be part of the problem here). That's the full received narrative. In some parts of the country, more insistently distributing the truth on McCain (something I agree Obama should do) will, by itself, not be enough to get people to vote for the black guy with the funny name.

General elections are different than primaries. I had no desire for Obama to go hard negative on Hillary during the primary. But you don't win a general election by playing only defense, especially when you are up against a guy who gets unbelievable deference from the traditional media. If you want them to look at McCain critically, you must to go on the attack.

Negative campaigning works. McCain's attack ads have been shameless and awful, but they have clearly hurt Obama -- check the trends at electoral-vote.com. Obama's people are going to have to work harder if they want the "McCain = Bush" meme to stick.


The thing that bothers me about the phrase "negative campaigning works" is that I don't feel like there's a consensus as to what negative campaigning even is. When I hear the phrase, a few examples leap to mind -- the Paris Hilton ad, the 3 AM ad, the Swift Boat thing, the Willie Horton ad. What makes these negative is that they either play directly into people's fears, or they (ambiguously or otherwise) rely on / propagate falsehoods. Is that the sort of thing you are suggesting Obama do?

Or are we talking about something more measured? This this for instance? (That to me is "negative" only in the sense that it focuses on McCain's flaws.)

Or something in between?

DJA said...

"Negative ads" are just hard-hitting ads that go after your opponent with no punches pulled. When Republicans do them, they are usually full of lies, but they don't have to be.

My favorite political ad of all time is (easily) "Daisy." Johnson was entirely right to run it. It was inflammatory (intentionally so) but not fundamentally untruthful -- Barry Goldwater really was a trigger-happy lunatic. Just like someone else we could mention.

DJA said...

Also, RE my earlier comments about McCain being the unknnown quantity in this election, see today's Frank Rich column.

Andrew Durkin... said...

see today's Frank Rich column

That's a great piece, thanks for the link. Again, I'm not saying Obama should refrain from defining McCain more truthfully for voters. Not at all. I'm just saying it's not an either/or proposition. That surfeit of Obama coverage that people are complaining about in the Pew poll is surely made up of some percentage of misinformation. Is he supposed to just let that stand?

"Negative ads" are just hard-hitting ads that go after your opponent with no punches pulled. When Republicans do them, they are usually full of lies, but they don't have to be.

My favorite political ad of all time is (easily) "Daisy."


I suspect that in the current political environment, when most people say that "negative ads work," they're talking about something a little more insidious than "Daisy." And why shouldn't they? I mean, Mondale tried something Daisy-like in 84, and where did it get him? Nowadays things are so poisonous when it comes to ads / email campaigns / smear books, etc., it takes something extraordinarily negative to break through the muck.

And therein lies the problem.

Still and all, I have to say you've inspired me with both this discussion and your recent post. We've got a tour coming up -- maybe I'll get my shit together and write a negative attack ad song for Obama...

DJA said...

I suspect that in the current political environment, when most people say that "negative ads work," they're talking about something a little more insidious than "Daisy."

Like a lot of 60's shit-disturbers, the "Daisy" ad now seems quaint and defanged by the passage of time, but seriously, the original take-home message was pretty shocking: "A vote for Goldwater is a vote for global nuclear armageddon!"

I'm not sure any one ad could have helped the noble but hapless Walter Mondale, but what I am talking about isn't an attempt to reference or reenact "Daisy," it's taking the spirit of "Daisy" to heart and having the Democrats (or allied 527s) put out something authentically shocking and controversial for once. (Hmm, there's an analogy to the museumification of jazz in there... ) But once it's out there, they have to stand behind it, not back right down like they always do (General Betray-us, etc).

Andrew Durkin... said...

Like a lot of 60's shit-disturbers, the "Daisy" ad now seems quaint and defanged by the passage of time

That's not what I said, though. I personally do think that ad is still shocking (can't get much more shocking than blowing up kids). But it wasn't insidious in the way so many ads are now. As you say, there was a basic underlying truth to it, a compelling point that was more or less out in the open, even if Goldwater was never mentioned by name.

In contrast, with something like the McCain Celebrity ad, as KT recently argued, there are meanings being constructed on a whole other level, subconsciously tapping into (and inflaming) primal fears that are much more problematic than the (understandable) fear of a nuclear holocaust. That's a different category of "negative" altogether.