Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
October 14, 2008
POLITICS: Obama and the Integrity Gap: "New Politics," Principled Positions, and Conclusion
Chapter seven of seven.
F. "New Politics" In Old Wineskin
Obama's supporters like to shift the conversation away from his record at all costs and focus on his campaign. One of the principal themes of that campaign has been his commitment to "a 'new politics for a new time' shorn of partisanship and division," exemplified by a higher standard of integrity in campaigning, what John Dickerson of Slate called "a national seminar for 16 months on changing politics and shedding the old insider way of doing things." Frankly, I pity anyone who was ever foolish enough to believe in that, but at any rate, even if you leave aside the traditional "who lied more and said meaner things about who," you can see that Obama's campaign has repeatedly broken the very promises that underpinned the "new politics" theme:
+Obama claims not to take money from lobbyists, but he's basically playing word games:
[H]e takes money from lobbyists' spouses and holds fundraisers at the offices of law firms that lobby Congress. He won't touch money from PACs or lobbyists representing big oil and drug companies, but he happily accepts huge amounts of money from executives at those companies and many others. In fact, he's relying on two oil company executives to raise $50,000 apiece for his campaign.
+Jake Tapper has noted that Obama's recent push to talk about McCain's involvement in the "Keating Five" scandal in the 1980s contradicts Obama's assertion earlier in the campaign that the Keating Five story was "not germane to the presidency." (This, while calling in Keating Five member John Glenn to stump for Obama in Ohio).
Obama has also been in hot water lately for doing nothing to prevent potentially illegal campaign donations, including possibly from foreign sources. Now, I'm not much of a starry-eyed idealist about this sort of thing, so I won't pretend for your benefit to be scandalized by Obama acting exactly like a conventional politician on a bunch of political-process issues. But once again, Obama's repeated abandonment of his prior promises on these sorts of issues reminds us yet again how malleable Obama is when it comes to any principle that stands in the way of his political self-interest.
G. Barack Obama, Man of Principle?
(1) Keep Left to Avoid The Traffic
As John McCain has now noted multiple times in their debates with no response from Senator Obama, Obama has never bucked his own party or its major interest groups in any significant way on any significant issue. Now, I'm a great believer in taking principled stands and having a coherent philosophy; the mere fact of being ideologically consistent is not necessarily in and of itself a character flaw. In fact, in a politician who is willing to take difficult stands on principle it can be positive proof of integrity.
But in Obama's case, his unwillingness to confront his own party and supporters on the issues raises two questions about his character. The first is that his career has insulated him from ever having to take a tough position and hold it under fire; until the current general election, he has never faced a contested election against a Republican or faced any real push-back from the Right (previously the only candidate to test him from his right was Hillary Clinton...think about that one a while). We have little enough evidence that Obama's positions are, or are not, deeply held convictions he would hold to at any political peril - like so much about him, they are untested. What we do know is that Obama's flurry of flip-flops this summer, most notoriously his craven capitulation on the FISA bill he had pledged to draw a line in the sand on, combined with his continuing effort in the debates to recast himself as a tax-cutter, spending-cutter and foreign policy hawk and his outright obfuscation of his position on the Born-Alive Infant Protection bill in Illinois, suggests that Obama's not actually all that willing to openly defend controversial positions.
Second, it is positively contradictory for Obama's supporters to argue that (1) his extensive ties to left-wing radicals were some sort of disingenuous camoflauge, and at the same time that (2) his rigidly left-wing voting record in public office is the mark of sincere high principle. Maybe Obama has a hardline left-wing record and far-left friends because that's who he really is, and maybe he has both because that's who he wanted to be to his constituents - but it's not plausible to separate the two.
In the absence of any battles against his own side or even any principled risks taken for his own side, most odes to Obama's judgment, character and principles begin and end with his opposition to the Iraq War - his 2002 war speech and his 2007-08 primary campaign as the sole principled anti-war candidate:
In a September 26, 2007, debate at Dartmouth College, Obama congratulated himself for "telling the truth to the American people even when it's tough, which I did in 2002, standing up against this war at a time where it was very unpopular. And I was risking my political career, because I was in the middle of a U.S. Senate race."
Obama's best shot at the  Democratic [Senate] nomination involved consolidating a coalition of lakefront liberals and African Americans. "He knew, and I knew, that the liberal progressives were key in any Democratic primary," says Dan Shomon, Obama's then-campaign manager...though it may have been unpopular to oppose the war in Washington, that was not the case among liberals in Chicago--among the first cities to pass an antiwar resolution. (Obama also had an interest in pleasing Saltzman [the organizer of the 2002 rally]. The spunky grandmother was an important local ally who has since raised more than $50,000 for his campaign.)
In the African-American community -- which is paid scant attention by national media -- anecdotal evidence and polling suggest there is heightened concern about the administration's credibility and the wisdom of this war. According to a new Gallup Poll, 68 percent of African-Americans now oppose the war.
And his 2002 speech pandered to that view, even pressing some decidedly anti-Semitic notes. Of course, after giving that one speech, Obama basically disappeared from the war debate without a trace; if you were listing the nation's loudest voices against the war in 2002 and 2003, you'd run through thousands of names before you reached Obama. From 2004 through the fall of 2006, Obama was essentially grudgingly in support of finishing the job in Iraq, and refused even to say flatly that he'd have voted against the war, telling the Chicago Tribune in July 2004, "[t]here's not that much difference between my position and George Bush's position at this stage." * As he pivoted to the general election in 2004, before Ryan flamed out, Obama denied that he'd ever called for withdrawal from Iraq. Only in January 2007, after the Democrats proved they could win Congressional elections with anti-war candidates and just weeks before launching his primary campaign, did Obama come out as a full-throated anti-warrior. In short, his Iraq position may never have encompassed a complete flip-flop, but it has surely tacked repeatedly with the political winds, and provides us no evidence of any particular principle or integrity on Obama's part.
H. Who Obama Isn't
Less than a month from the general election, we can say who Barack Obama isn't, but we still don't really know who he is. To be sure, Obama is to all appearances affable, a good speechmaker and a good family man, but when we look beyond talk to what the man has done, we find an awful lot not to like in such a short and parochial career.
Three times now in the debates, John McCain has challenged Obama to name an example of standing up to the vested interests on his own side or the leadership of his own party. Three times, Obama has failed to respond. Those of us who have studied his career know that that's because there is nothing he can say (the best David Axelrod could come up with was a Russ Feingold bill that passed the Senate 96-2). We can't know what Obama truly believes, and we haven't seen what it would take to get him to stand his ground under fire. We only know that time and again he's taken the path of least resistance with people who really needed someone to say "no" to them, and reaped the rewards of their favor.
A President Obama would be faced with many challenges and crises and tests, not a one of which he has ever passed. He would have the ability to appoint scores of people to federal executive, judicial and administrative agency jobs - what kind of people would he appoint to positions of responsibility? He would have control over vast quantities of federal spending - how would he spend it, how would he restrain spending, who would his spending and regulatory decisions benefit? Would he stand up to sleaze, to powerful vested interests that support his party, to ideological extremists? Can he be trusted to operate these vast powers when we know that a compliant Democratic Congress led by the likes of Charlie Rangel and Barney Frank and Nancy Pelosi and John Conyers and Chris Dodd will have no motivation to provide meaningful oversight? Everything in his record tells us that he cannot. Obama supporters who tell you otherwise are simply wishcasting their own desires and ignoring his actual record. Because Barack Obama has no record of integrity. Only words, and people who badly want to believe them.
In Part III: McCain's battles; Biden's long tradition of existence in the Senate.