Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Choking in the clutch

David Seaton's News Links
A great many people on the left, on the right and on the center are increasingly puzzled by Barack Obama's "turn toward the center" and are unable to explain it.

I have a theory, of course.

I'm afraid that I'm going to have to tell a golfing story.

I don't like golf, I don't play golf, I don't even watch it on TV.

However, my late father was a businessman and he had had to spend a great deal of time and money to become reasonably competent at the game; as such proficiency was indispensable to him in his wheelings and dealings and he once told me the following story.

My father knew a man that made a lot of money betting on golf.

Let's call him "the oldest member".

He was a little old fellow, not very strong, not very tall, not very heavy... he couldn't hit the ball very far, but he could hit it very straight and with total control, his little chip shots were jewel perfect and his putting deadly.

But the most important thing about him is that he didn't have a nerve in his body, he was as cold as ice or perhaps it would have been more correct to say that he had the sort of disattachment that Zen archers and yogis are supposed to possess.

Despite the ice in his veins, he was a friendly, unassuming, insignificant, little fellow with a successful, if modest business, known to have money, who never had any problem finding someone to play a round of golf with him.

The compleat hustler, he chose his victims with care.

Those that he preyed on were the brilliant natural golfers. The sort of fellows who captained their school golf teams in high school and college, who might have had fantasies of "turning pro" before the responsibilities of wife and children or a seat on the board of the family firm took them on to more prosaic paths: men who drove the ball far, who sometimes came in under par. Hearty, aggressive and self-confident... until the man my father knew crossed their paths.

The first few holes were played for peanuts and the "oldest member" lost them cheerfully, all full of admiration for the solid drives and brilliant birdies of his mark.

After about three of four holes the "oldest member" offered to double the bet at each succeeding hole. Soon the "natural" was winning big bucks. Everybody knew the little old fellow could pay... it was like taking candy from a baby.

By about the twelfth hole the "oldest member's" victim was winning a fortune, a fortune which doubled at each succeeding hole.

But then, way at the back of the winner's mind a dark, spark of a little genie began to pull at his coat... "But what if I lost? Impossible! Lose to this pitiful duffer! ... Yeah, but what if?" the little genie would murmur, "Christ, I'd have to take another mortgage on my house if I lost this, my wife would divorce me if she found out I lost this much playing golf with an old man. I won't be able to pay my daughter's orthodontist."

And so thought succeeded thought and the natural's hands began to sweat and his game slowly became erratic... The powerful drives began to slice into the rough, while the little old man was onto the green with three or four of his plumb line dribbles and into the cup in two or three unadventurous, but perfect, puttlings: meanwhile the natural was blasting furiously out of the sand and beginning to bogey.

Finally, broke and broken the natural trudged away, so humiliated that he never told another soul at the club what had been done to him. In this way "the oldest member" was able to continue his devil's game.

End of story

What does this have to do with Obama?

Simply, that Obama is a "natural" and the "old man" in my story is "reality", certainly not McCain.

I imagine when Obama announced he was running for President, Hillary was considered "inevitable" and he thought that running in the primaries would at least make him into a national figure and position him for veep or whatever and then he discovered that he had tapped into some sort of vein of mass hysteria and craziness of the kind that periodically sweeps America throughout its history and it all began to get out of control.

Things like this began to appear.
"Many spiritually advanced people I know (not coweringly religious, mind you, but deeply spiritual) identify Obama as a Lightworker, that rare kind of attuned being who has the ability to lead us not merely to new foreign policies or health care plans or whatnot, but who can actually help usher in a new way of being on the planet, of relating and connecting and engaging with this bizarre earthly experiment. These kinds of people actually help us evolve. They are philosophers and peacemakers of a very high order, and they speak not just to reason or emotion, but to the soul." Mark Morford, San Francisco Chronicle
How is a Hawaiian from the South Side of Chicago supposed to handle horse shit like that?

When I read Morford's piece I wondered whether it was possible to laugh and vomit at the same time without strangling.

After winning the primaries Obama suddenly saw that, from being a junior Senator and a former community organizer, he was now the favorite to become, literally, the most powerful man on earth.

All that is really standing now between him and unimaginable power and responisiblity: the chance to fail like Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush, are his own ghosts and inner demons... and his game is beginning to fall apart.

Probably the best time line of this process comes from paleo-conservative Pat Buchanan:
  • Samantha Power was tossed off Barack's sledge after calling Hillary a "monster" and suggesting Barack's Iraq timetable was not set in concrete. Robert Malley was canned for having talked to Hamas, though that was his portfolio at a think tank for conflict resolution.
  • Barack pole-axed pastor Wright and, though he said he could no more repudiate his church than his family, shortly after the second time Wright went off, Barack severed all ties to Trinity United.
  • Barack has spoken of how he cringed at the racist reaction of his white grandmother after she was accosted by a black man on a bus. Grandma has now been rehabilitated in a new ad as the loving woman who inculcated good old Kansas values into little Barack.
  • When his own surrogate, Gen. Wesley Clark, suggested John McCain's war service did not automatically qualify him as presidential timber, a storm erupted. Barack proceeded to cut the general's legs off.
  • His had been one of a few Senate voices to speak of Palestinian suffering. But Barack's address to the Israeli lobby read like it was plagiarized from the collected works of Ze'ev Jabotinsky.
  • When the Supreme Court declared every citizen has a Second Amendment right to a handgun, Barack stood with Justice Scalia. When Scalia said the court ought not to have taken away Louisiana's right to execute child rapists, Barack was with him again.
  • When Congress voted the telecoms immunity from prosecution for colluding with the Bush administration in wiretapping citizens, Barack stood with Bush and the telecoms. Fearing it might cost him his huge money-raising advantage over McCain, Barack tossed campaign finance reform over the side.
  • In Ohio, Barack was a populist opponent of NAFTA. He is now a free-trader. Yet when economic adviser Austan Goolsbee told the Canadians pretty much the same thing, Barack disinherited him.
  • As July 4 approached, Barack gratuitously dissed his friends at MoveOn.org for their "General Betray Us" ad mocking Gen. David Petraeus. And that flag pin Barack got rid of after 9-11, calling it a "substitute ... for real patriotism"? It's back on the lapel.
  • Last week, Barack said that, after he meets with Petraeus and his field commanders in Iraq, he might "refine" his commitment to withdraw all U.S. combat brigades within 16 months.
  • And finally, Obama has co-opted President Bush's faith-based initiative and claimed it as his own.
In the center-center, The Financial Times grumbled.
All this is a mixture the left finds toxic – and it allows Republicans to attack Mr Obama for cynicism and inconsistency. So much for his new kind of politics, they say.(...) Mr Obama needs policies that retain the left’s loyalty, underline the Democrats’ case for change, impress independents and move the country with conviction in a new direction. It so happens he has one: comprehensive healthcare reform, an issue of historic importance for the country’s fiscal prospects, economic vitality and moral self-confidence. Lately it has been relegated to secondary status, behind taxes and national security. Mr Obama needs to put that right.
Progressives are the most worried. Bob Herbert of The New York Times sounds positively heartbroken.
Back in January when Barack Obama pulled off his stunning win in the Iowa caucuses, and people were lining up in the cold and snow for hours just to get a glimpse of him, there was a wide and growing belief — encouraged to the max by the candidate — that something new in American politics had arrived.(...) Only an idiot would think or hope that a politician going through the crucible of a presidential campaign could hold fast to every position, steer clear of the stumbling blocks of nuance and never make a mistake. But Barack Obama went out of his way to create the impression that he was a new kind of political leader — more honest, less cynical and less relentlessly calculating than most. You would be able to listen to him without worrying about what the meaning of “is” is. This is why so many of Senator Obama’s strongest supporters are uneasy, upset, dismayed and even angry at the candidate who is now emerging in the bright light of summer.(...) But Senator Obama is not just tacking gently toward the center. He’s lurching right when it suits him, and he’s zigging with the kind of reckless abandon that’s guaranteed to cause disillusion, if not whiplash. So there he was in Zanesville, Ohio, pandering to evangelicals by promising not just to maintain the Bush program of investing taxpayer dollars in religious-based initiatives, but to expand it. Separation of church and state? Forget about it. And there he was, in the midst of an election campaign in which the makeup of the Supreme Court is as important as it has ever been, agreeing with Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas that the death penalty could be imposed for crimes other than murder. What was the man thinking? Thankfully, a majority on the court left the barbaric Scalia-Thomas-Obama (and John McCain) reasoning behind and held that capital punishment would apply only to homicides. “What’s he doing?” is the most common question heard recently from Obama supporters.(...) There has been a reluctance among blacks to openly criticize Senator Obama, the first black candidate with a real shot at the presidency. But behind the scenes, there is discontent among African-Americans, as well, over Mr. Obama’s move away from progressive issues, including his support of the Supreme Court’s decision affirming the constitutional right of individuals to bear arms. There’s even concern that he’s doing the Obama two-step on the issue that has been the cornerstone of his campaign: his opposition to the war in Iraq. But the senator denied that any significant change should be inferred from his comment that he would “continue to refine” his policy on the war.(...) that’s a very dangerous game for a man who first turned voters on by presenting himself as someone who was different, who wouldn’t engage in the terminal emptiness of politics as usual. Time flies and the Iowa caucuses seem a very long time ago.
The gray lady herself recoiled, sniffing in shocked dismay.
Senator Barack Obama stirred his legions of supporters, and raised our hopes, promising to change the old order of things. He spoke with passion about breaking out of the partisan mold of bickering and catering to special pleaders, promised to end President Bush’s abuses of power and subverting of the Constitution and disowned the big-money power brokers who have corrupted Washington politics. Now there seems to be a new Barack Obama on the hustings. First, he broke his promise to try to keep both major parties within public-financing limits for the general election. His team explained that, saying he had a grass-roots-based model and that while he was forgoing public money, he also was eschewing gold-plated fund-raisers. These days he’s on a high-roller hunt.(...) The new Barack Obama has abandoned his vow to filibuster an electronic wiretapping bill if it includes an immunity clause for telecommunications companies that amounts to a sanctioned cover-up of Mr. Bush’s unlawful eavesdropping after 9/11. In January, when he was battling for Super Tuesday votes, Mr. Obama said that the 1978 law requiring warrants for wiretapping, and the special court it created, worked. “We can trace, track down and take out terrorists while ensuring that our actions are subject to vigorous oversight and do not undermine the very laws and freedom that we are fighting to defend,” he declared. Now, he supports the immunity clause as part of what he calls a compromise but actually is a classic, cynical Washington deal that erodes the power of the special court, virtually eliminates “vigorous oversight” and allows more warrantless eavesdropping than ever.(...) Mr. Obama endorsed the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the District of Columbia’s gun-control law. We knew he ascribed to the anti-gun-control groups’ misreading of the Constitution as implying an individual right to bear arms. But it was distressing to see him declare that the court provided a guide to “reasonable regulations enacted by local communities to keep their streets safe.”(...) There are still vital differences between Mr. Obama and Senator John McCain on issues like the war in Iraq, taxes, health care and Supreme Court nominations. We don’t want any “redefining” on these big questions. This country needs change it can believe in.
Arianna Huffington is more in the strict governess line.
Running to the middle in an attempt to attract undecided swing voters didn't work for Al Gore in 2000. It didn't work for John Kerry in 2004. And it didn't work when Mark Penn (obsessed with his "microtrends" and missing the megatrend) convinced Hillary Clinton to do it in 2008. Fixating on -- and pandering to -- this fickle crowd is all about messaging tailored to avoid offending rather than to inspire and galvanize. And isn't galvanizing the electorate to demand fundamental change the raison d'etre of the Obama campaign in the first place?(...) Watering down that brand is the political equivalent of New Coke. Call it Obama Zero. In 2004, the Kerry campaign's obsession with undecided voters -- voters so easily swayed that 46 percent of them found credible the Swift Boaters' charges that Kerry might have faked his war wounds to earn a Purple Heart -- allowed the race to devolve from a referendum on the future of the country into a petty squabble over whether Kerry had bled enough to warrant his medals. Throughout the primary, Obama referred to himself as an "unlikely candidate." Which he certainly was -- and still is. And one of the things that turned him from "unlikely" upstart to presidential frontrunner is his ability to expand the electorate by convincing unlikely voters -- some of the 83 million eligible voters who didn't turn out in 2004 -- to engage in the system. So why start playing to the political fence sitters -- staking out newly nuanced positions on FISA, gun control laws, expansion of the death penalty, and NAFTA? In an interview with Nina Easton in Fortune Magazine, Obama was asked about having called NAFTA "a big mistake" and "devastating." Obama's reply: "Sometimes during campaigns the rhetoric gets overheated and amplified." Overheated? So when he was campaigning in the Midwest, many parts of which have been, yes, devastated by economic changes since the passage of NAFTA, and he pledged to make use of a six-month opt-out clause in the trade agreement, that was "overheated?" Or was that one "amplified?" Because if that's the case, it would be helpful going forward if Obama would let us know which of his powerful rhetoric is "overheated" and/or "amplified," so voters will know not to get their hopes too high.(...) The Obama brand has always been about inspiration, a new kind of politics, the audacity of hope, and "change we can believe in." I like that brand. More importantly, voters -- especially unlikely voters -- like that brand. Pulling it off the shelf and replacing it with a political product geared to pleasing America's vacillating swing voters -- the ones who will be most susceptible to the fear-mongering avalanche that has already begun -- would be a fatal blunder. Realpolitik is one thing. Realstupidpolitik is quite another.
And Pat Buchanan sums it all up well too.
We may be misunderestimating Barack. But the question of 2008 remains: When all is said and done, who is this guy?
I think it is all more simple than that.

Obama the natural has been playing double or nothing with the oldest member, who is reality, not repeat not, John McCain: and seeing laid out before him, like the Promised Land before Moses, the greatest of successes or the most humiliating of failures... he is choking and his game is falling apart. DS


RC said...

Well, I am not so sure the parable of the oldest member {the phrase suggests an ancient phallus} is a good fit for the events, but the Obama game IS getting a bit shaky.
I know you have taken pains to note that the "member" is not McCain, but we ARE back to that. Product A has a shiny wrapper, product B doesn't. Now choose.

David Seaton's Newslinks said...

The bit about "the oldest member" is an homage to PG Wodehouse's golfing stories. But to consider "reality" as an "ancient phallus", ever targeting humanity's backside, will do nicely.

I think finally the choice between Obama and McCain is between someone (very flawed, very suspect on many issues)that people have known and observed in action for a long time and a self-told story.

Obama has no CV at all. He is a Rorschach ink blot that people project their hopse and fears on.

If Obama doesn't stick close to his story he literally ceases to exist.

As Buchanan asks "The question of 2008 remains: When all is said and done, who is this guy?"

Forensic economist said...

David -

I think Obama is the hustler, and McCain the "natural."

Sometimes we get an intuitive politician who people seem to have an emotional connection with despite what they may actually do. Reagan was loved, the camera loved him, even though he and his administration did outrageous things. Yes, he was an actor. Bill Clinton was another natural politician who "felt your pain."

Image is everything in American politics.

I see it as one candidate who is competent enough at marketing to design a shiny wrapper, and the other isn't. In fact McCain is crafting an image of being macho and ignorant - "don't know much about economics."

McCain (as reported on Josh Marshal's website) has just announced that Social Security's pay-as-you-go system is "a disgrace." It scarcely matters what Obama does, McCain is hitting the ball into the sand trap.

So who is Obama really? My guess is a return to Bill Clinton. Someone who is centrist, takes corporate and big donor money, won't rock the boat. Someone who will be interested in getting reelected.

David Seaton's Newslinks said...

Dear Forensic,
I don't think of McCain as the "oldest member" or hustler.
Obama, not McCain is running against Obama and the "oldest member" is reality.

Comparing Reagan and Clinton to Obama misses an important point: Both Reagan and Clinton were successful governors. Although much is made of Reagan's Hollywood career, being a two term governor of a state like California, which, if it were an independent country, would probably be in the G8 makes a person automatically presidential. If Arny had been born in the USA, he and not McCain would probably be the republican candidate this year.

Bill Clinton had been governor of Arkansas almost since he left university and had had great success in growing the economy there. Both Clinton and Reagan had bona fide credentials.

Who really is Obama?

In my opinion, that he is being taken seriously shows how pitifully desperate the American people are at the moment.

RC said...

I've read some Wodehouse in my distant youth but must have missed or by now forgotten the oldest member.
I was a caddy in my teens and did play the game and do of course know the oldest member archetype, but the Wodehouse version I'll have to check back on. Indeed, in that same lost youth I caddied for that member.
I do agree that reality is the eternal leveler of all things politic. And I am extremely apprehensive about the reality we are going to be living next year no matter who gets to be the new Decider.
I used to concentrate my web readings on the political sphere, but now, out of self defense, I mostly read economics and subsistence farming material. I really expect very little help for us from the political sphere, and certainly not much from the financial sphere either. But we will all need all the help we can get adjusting to the Brave New World of societal quicksand. See you there!

Stephanie said...

There is also the unnerving possibility that Obama may not quite know who he is either. He is, after all, not that far from the beginning of his public career. So we're all in the dark, a reassuring thought.

Kevin E. said...

I think this is a brilliant parable....the only skeptical question I have, though, is whether the voting public (as distinct from the possibly more discerning large groups of people who don't bother to vote in our horrible two-party elections) may not indeed be composed of slightly more rubes than not. And whether those rubes might not fall for this lurch to the center.

Perhaps in the end, as has happened in most recent elections, the decisive thumb on the scale will belong to the mainstream media--and so far, that thumb seems to be pretty heavily on the McCain side of the scale. Obama, McCain: Hobson's Choice!

Enjoy your vacation with William James! How far have we fallen in just one century, from the days of C.S. Peirce and James and Dewey and even Walter Lippmann! Rest up for the horrors of the election season, alas! But thank you as always for the sanity of your commentary, which helps me keep a tenuous grip on my own.

David Seaton's Newslinks said...

That is exactly the impression that I got reading his autobiography: he doesn't know who he is and we are all supposed to help him find out.

Forensic economist said...

David --

"that he is being taken seriously shows how pitifully desperate the American people are at the moment."

Point taken.

desperate -- The mood is that Americans really want someone different, someone to "change" the system. Obama plays very skillfully on that feeling.

pitifully -- the only ones who were actually advocating change (Kucinich, maybe Ron Paul) were also rans.

Unfortunately, "running against the system" is also a common theme in American politics. Nixon talked of the silent majority, Reagan ran against the Washington elites, now Obama promises Change We Can Believe In.

In other words, the American voter feels something is very wrong but doesn't really want to do anything about it.

Have a nice vacation; I will be heading for Pinecrest, California myself. Mountain lake, no phone, no internet access; way too much smoke right now.