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Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Soljahing On

by digby

This article in Huffington Post suggests that Obama's recent pronouncements (discussed here in great detail by Glenn Greenwald) aren't "real" Sistah Soljah's, in the sense that Bill Clinton's original was. The upshot is that a real Sistah Soljah is is a political freebie, used to take a rhetorical shot at particular members of your own political community who aren't overwhelmingly popular among its own members. It concludes that the only real Sistah Soljah of the recent pronouncements is the slap at "Move-On" yesterday which the writer believes is popular with many liberals, just as Clinton's slap at Soljah was popular among plenty of blacks.

The writer says that the other issues --- FISA, siding with Scalia in two major decisions, the dance around Wes Clark, enthusiastically embracing the right's "faith-based" frame --- are evidence of Obama's true beliefs, which are simply now being emphasized as he goes forward into the general election and should not be construed as political gambits. I think he may very well be correct that this isn't solely political calculation. It's absolutely true that Obama hasn't actually flip-flopped on many of these things, the issues have just not been well illuminated before.

However, the fact that these speeches and pronouncements are all being rolled out, one after the other, in the fashion they are, suggests that there is political intent in putting as much distance as possible between Obama and the liberal base. It's entirely possible that he is a true centrist and also believes that it's politically desirable to ensure that the beltway wags adopt a campaign narrative thread of liberal repudiation.

There is a possible price to be paid for this however. First of all the narrative is in danger of being spun in a destructive way if it runs on too long. Here's how ABC is reporting the welfare reform thing today:

Obama Shifts on Welfare Reform

ABC News' Teddy Davis and Gregory Wallace Report: Barack Obama aligned himself with welfare reform on Monday, launching a television ad which touts the way the overhaul "slashed the rolls by 80 percent." Obama leaves out, however, that he was against the 1996 federal legislation which precipitated the caseload reduction.

It's perfectly understandable that Obama would be in favor of welfare reform now. Virtually everyone is. It was a successful initiative. At some point, however, too much of this sort of thing begins to feed to right's longstanding theme that Democrats have no core beliefs, are flip-floppers, soft, flaccid etc. It's a complicated path to take and requires some very deft handling.

This strategy is not unprecedented. It's common for a party that has been out of power for some time to be hungry for a win and willing to make any number of concessions to make that happen. (The opposite is often true of the party that has been in power and is losing steam. They often need to be chastised at the polls for a while before they start to seriously reevaluate their approach.) But there was supposed to be something different, paradigm busting, about this year. Even considering how weak the Republicans are and the new ground being broken in other ways, it was still assumed we'd see some really interesting new angles on this phenomenon and a much greater concentration on expanding the electorate to the previously unenfranchised than making any overt attempt to sway swing voters with centrist policies. I am, frankly, a little bit surprised at how uncreatively they are going about all this. It's a bit crude.

So far we have a pretty standard issue agenda, with the predictable "one from column A and one from column B" move to the center approach. I knew we wouldn't have a campaign that came out of the Kucinich shop, but I was hoping that the issue agenda itself would be turned upside down and the race run on new terrain. Maybe it still will be, but if we find ourselves still talking about faith based programs and McCain's "service" in September, then the election will be fought on conservative terms again. (The fact that Tom Daschle, with his patented "lets give them a quick ok on Iraq so we can run on prescription drugs" style tactics, is in the mix --- I worry.)

I guess we'll find out how that all worked out in November. It's disappointing that when the Right is in steep decline the Democrats still reflexively work within the framework that insists progressivism is something to be ashamed of. But that is hardly unprecedented either. Indeed, it's been the operating principle of the entire political establishment for decades now. Obviously, we have a lot of work to do to change that and it's going to have to be changed from the outside in.

I wrote this in one of my first posts on this blog, shortly after the 2002 election:

MyDD posts about the rhetorical fight being waged between Howard Dean and John Kerry over the Iraq resolution. I'm with Dean on this. Kerry's Iraq vote was disasterous, and all the more so because he didn't have to do it. He says he'll hold Bush's feet to the fire, but unfortunately, he has absolutely no power to do that so it sounds like so much weak political bullshit. Which it is.

The Red Staters who were facing shameful scumbags like Saxby Chambliss last November could be forgiven. But it was important to rank and file Democrats that their national leaders (none of whom were facing tough re-election battles) understood how important this issue was to them and that they take a stand.

Every last Democratic presidential hopeful in the Senate took a dive.

It was a cowardly
CYA-for-the-future-because-the-big-bad-Republicans-will-be-mean vote that took the starch right out of the Democratic base who made thousands of calls and wrote thousands of letters veritably begging the leading Dems to hold tough on this issue. Any Democratic electoral momentum leading up to the election hit a brick wall when they caved.

And we can thank the vaunted political strategists of Carville, Shrum and Greenberg for this incredible miscalculation:

According to the memo, the most effective argument for Democrats who oppose the war is one which "affirms one's commitment to wage the war against terrorism, including getting rid of Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, but that questions the rush to war; it calls on the U.S. to seek U.N. and international support, others sharing costs and making sure we will achieve greater stability."

Nearly as strong, the memo argues, is explaining a no vote as a no "for now," and "stressing the need to go to the UN and try to get the inspectors back into Iraq and work to get the support of our allies."

That position, the memo notes, is strongest by far with "independents and with men (where the issue has more salience.)"

The least effective argument?

"Outright opposition to the war against Iraq and to the concept of regime change, finishing with the phrase, 'it is the wrong thing to do,' produces a weak response," they write.

Driving the point home, the memo points out that the poll found that a Democrat who opposes the war who simply argues that the policy is wrong loses by 15 points (39 percent to 54 percent) to a Republican who says he or she "trusts Bush to do this right."

Yeah. The politician who sounds the most like he's trying to have it both ways is always a big winner.

Carville,Greenberg and Shrum's post mortem of the election said:

In the end, 39 percent of the actual voters self-identified as Republicans, 3 percent more than in 2000 and 1998. The Democratic portion fell to 35 percent (down from 39 percent in 2000 and 37 percent in 1998). That alone could more than account for the shift witnessed at the polls. There was an even bigger increase in self-identified conservatives in the elector-ate, 41 percent, compared to approximately 30 percent two and four years ago.

How surprising.

Now, we are stuck with this absurd position of having to defend giving Junior a blank check while pretending that we are "influencing" the debate. And this happened, in my opinion, largely because some of the Democratic base was depressed by the craven behavior of its Senate leaders on the grave issue of whether to go to war.

I love Carville on Crossfire. He seems like a great guy. But, I have to wonder when the last time these three Democratic strategists actually won any elections.

I lay the loss of this one at their feet.

Five and a half years later and our presidential election is all about Democratic enthusiasm. The rank and file is hungry to win and likes its candidate a great deal. But it would be a grave mistake to take that too much for granted. It has had consequences in the past.