An Appeal to Barack Obama

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"The Democrats have been stuck in the arguments of Vietnam, which means that either you're a Scoop Jackson Democrat or you're a Tom Hayden Democrat and you're suspicious of any military action. And that's just not my framework." - Sen. Barack Obama.

Barack, I thought Hillary Clinton was known as the Great Triangulator, but you are learning well. The problem with setting up false polarities to position yourself in the "center", however, is that it's unproductive both politically and intellectually.

Politically, it is a mistake because there last time I looked there were a whole lot more "Tom Hayden Democrats" voting in the California primary and, I suspect, around the country, than "'Scoop' Jackson Democrats." In fact, they are your greatest potential base, aside from African-American voters, in a multi-candidate primary.

More disturbing is what happens to the mind by setting up these polarities. To take a "centrist" position, one calculates the equal distance between two "extremes." It doesn't matter if one "extreme" is closer to the truth. All that matters is achieving the equidistance. This means the presumably "extreme" view is prevented from having a fair hearing, which would require abandoning the imaginary center. And it invites the "extreme" to become more "extreme" in order to pull the candidate's thinking in a more progressive direction. The process of substantive thinking is corroded by the priority of political positioning.

I have been enthused by the crowds you draw, by the excitement you instill in my son and daughter-in-law, by the seeds of inspiration you plant in our seven-year old [biracial] kid. I love the alternative American narrative you weave on the stump, one in which once-radical social movements ultimately create a better America step by step. I very much respect your senior advisers like David Axelrod, who figured out a way to elect Harold Washington mayor of Chicago. You are a truly global figure in this age of globalization.

But as the months wear on, I see a problem of the potential being squandered. Hillary Clinton already occupies the political center. John Edwards holds the populist labor/left. And that leaves you with a transcendent vision in search of a constituency.

Your opposition to the Iraq War could have distinguished you, but it became more parsed than pronounced. All the nuance might please the New York Times' Michael Gordon, who helped get us into this madness in the first place, but the slivers of difference appear too narrow for many voters to notice. Clinton's plan, such as it is, amounts to six more years of thousands of American troops in Iraq [at least]. Your proposal is to remove combat troops by mid-2010, while leaving thousands of advisers trying to train a dysfunctional Iraqi army, and adding that you might re-invade to stave off ethnic genocide. Lately, you have said the mission of your residual American force would be more limited than the Clinton proposal. You would commit trainers, for example, only if the Iraqi government engages in reconciliation and abandons sectarian policing. You would not embed American trainers in the crossfire of combat. This nuancing avoids the tough and obvious question of what to do with the sectarian Frankenstein monster we have funded, armed and trained in the Baghdad Interior Ministry. The Jones Commission recently proposed "scrapping" the Iraqi police service. Do you agree? The Center for American Progress, directed by Bill Clinton's former chief of staff, is urging that all US troops, including trainers, be redeployed this year. Why do you disagree? Lately you have taken advantage of Hillary Clinton's hawkishness on Iran to oppose bombing that country without Congressional authorization.

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