Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Ruth Marcus: Forget Substance - Tone Is Everything


Barack Obama this week unveiled the closing argument of his presidential campaign. It seemed more like a reminder of his unfinished business.

I'm not referring to Obama's specific plans. Policy goodies such as health care and renewable energy, billions for this and credits for that, are inherently future "deliverables," contingent on election.

Well, of course not. You're a pseudo-centrist WaPo pundit. You'll take advantage of any excuse to discuss intangibles rather than issues, and where the opposing candidates or parties stand on them. Substance isn't your forte. To steal from Edie Brickell, "shove me into shallow waters" should be your motto.

I'm talking, rather, about Obama's entrancing promise of ushering in a new politics, one that rises above entrenched partisan rifts to unite a divided country.
But this is not -- although it could have been -- the way that candidate Obama has run his campaign or the message he has run it on. I believe he sincerely would have preferred that it be different: more elevated and more honest, less beholden to party orthodoxy and less slashing toward opponents.

Yet Obama has run a rather standard Democratic campaign, largely obeisant to party constituencies and allergic to difficult choices. Run it brilliantly, yes, but not with much more than a passing hint of the new politics he envisions. Better angels, it seems, do not make the best campaign strategists.

Accepting his party's nomination in Denver, Obama decried the use of "stale tactics to scare voters." A few weeks later, he was airing ads warning that John McCain wanted to privatize Social Security and would slash seniors' benefits almost in half. You can't get much staler than that.

Stale, perhaps. But was it true?

I know, Ruth, that's substance. Sorry. But McCain has, in fact, been on record for quite some time as favoring Social Security privatization. And that would involve benefit cuts now, or in the near future.

Certainly, McCain did not shy away from the cheap shot or the divisive argument; the palling-around-with-terrorists, Obama-as-socialist themes were not the elevated campaign that he, too, pledged to run.

I don't blame Obama for responding in kind as much as I bristle at his simultaneous posture that he is above that sort of gutter politics.
What gutter politics? What Obama has consistently demonstrated is that he's a counterpuncher. He doesn't pick any fights, but if he's attacked, he uses the attack itself as the basis of his counterattack. It's hardly going into the gutter to use an opponent's own attack, his own words, against him.
Even more, I question his assumption that the pressures that led him to such campaign tactics will somehow melt away after the election. What evidence is there that a President Obama would govern differently than candidate Obama campaigned?
Does he have some magical, Republican-whisperer ability to quell a political opposition that will be determined from Day One to frustrate his program and regain power?
This is where Obama's counterpunching will stand him in good stead. If he makes a good-faith effort to reach across to Republicans, and pass the programs we need to fix America's problems in a bipartisan manner, and the GOP filibusters his every move, then you can bet he'll figure out how to use that fact against them - and have the support of the American people as he does so.

Would a President Obama press policies -- on teacher accountability, on climate change, on trade -- that discomfit Democratic Party interest groups? Does he have the spine to stand up to the inevitably overreaching demands of congressional Democrats?

1) He has in the past.

2) Even more important, I bet he's got the spine to stand up to - or simply ignore - the ridiculous demands of the Beltway pundit class. They always want Dems to demonstrate their fortitude by standing up to someone else - usually working Americans - but never to them.

I suspect Marcus, Broder, Samuelson, Cohen, Applebaum, and all the rest of that crowd, are in for a surprise in January.


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