Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Obama as Outsider

Every election we are inundated with candidates who attempt to portray themselves as Washington outsiders. Most of them are just play-acting. Obama is not. He has the facts behind him. Obviously, he's not a complete outsider -- he is a Senator, after all and a member of a major political party -- but compared to all other major candidates, he's a breath of fresh air. Four years after we invaded Iraq -- four years -- the Democrats have only managed to field a single candidate who both has the potential to be elected and was correct to oppose the war?

You didn't have to be a genius to see what was coming in 2003. I saw it. My family saw it and most of my friends saw it as well. The talk of the mushroom cloud was bullshit. The switch to "weapons of mass destruction" was ridiculous -- Saddam had chemical weapons in the 80s with our blessing. They weren't a threat to us then and they weren't a threat to us in 2003 -- even if he'd had them.

Even now, supporters of the president like to point out that the Democratic establishment was also wrong about the war. As if that's an excuse. The Democrats were spineless and feckless. I can't believe more than 10 of the Democratic senators who voted to give Bush the authorization believed Saddam was a legitimate threat to us.

The knock on Obama that he is "inexperienced" is laughable. If you're the general manager of an NBA team on draft day, given the choice between a star high-school player with an NBA body and an NBA mind or a four-year NCAA veteran of smaller stature and questionable judgment who has done nothing but lose, who are you going to go with? The one with "experience?" Or the one who can ball?

Excerpt from his speech at DePaul:
Five years ago today, I was asked to speak at a rally against going to war in Iraq. The vote to authorize the war in Congress was less than ten days away and I was a candidate for the United States Senate. Some friends of mine advised me to keep quiet. Going to war in Iraq, they pointed out, was popular. All the other major candidates were supporting the war at the time. If the war goes well, they said, you'll have thrown your political career away.

But I didn't see how Saddam Hussein posed an imminent threat. I was convinced that a war would distract us from Afghanistan and the real threat from al Qaeda. I worried that Iraq's history of sectarian rivalry could leave us bogged down in a bloody conflict. And I believed the war would fan the flames of extremism and lead to new terrorism. So I went to the rally. And I argued against a "rash war" - a "war based not on reason, but on politics" - "an occupation of undetermined length, with undetermined costs, and undetermined consequences."

I was not alone. Though not a majority, millions of Americans opposed giving the President the authority to wage war in Iraq. Twenty-three Senators, including the leader of the Senate Intelligence Committee, shared my concerns and resisted the march to war. For us, the war defied common sense. After all, the people who hit us on 9/11 were in Afghanistan, not Iraq.

But the conventional thinking in Washington has a way of buying into stories that make political sense even if they don't make practical sense. We were told that the only way to prevent Iraq from getting nuclear weapons was with military force. Some leading Democrats echoed the Administration's erroneous line that there was a connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. We were counseled by some of the most experienced voices in Washington that the only way for Democrats to look tough was to talk, act and vote like a Republican.

As Ted Sorensen's old boss President Kennedy once said "the pursuit of peace is not as dramatic as the pursuit of war" and frequently the words of the pursuer fall on deaf ears." In the fall of 2002, those deaf ears were in Washington. They belonged to a President who didn't tell the whole truth to the American people; who disdained diplomacy and bullied allies; and who squandered our unity and the support of the world after 9/11.

But it doesn't end there. Because the American people weren't just failed by a President - they were failed by much of Washington. By a media that too often reported spin instead of facts. By a foreign policy elite that largely boarded the bandwagon for war. And most of all by the majority of a Congress - "a coequal branch of government" - that voted to give the President the open-ended authority to wage war that he uses to this day. Let's be clear: without that vote, there would be no war.

Some seek to rewrite history. They argue that they weren't really voting for war, they were voting for inspectors, or for diplomacy. But the Congress, the Administration, the media, and the American people all understood what we were debating in the fall of 2002. This was a vote about whether or not to go to war. That's the truth as we all understood it then, and as we need to understand it now. And we need to ask those who voted for the war: how can you give the President a blank check and then act surprised when he cashes it?

With all that we know about what's gone wrong in Iraq, even today's debate is divorced from reality. We've got a surge that is somehow declared a success even though it has failed to enable the political reconciliation that was its stated purpose. The fact that violence today is only as horrific as in 2006 is held up as progress. Washington politicians and pundits trip over each other to debate a newspaper advertisement while our troops fight and die in Iraq.

And the conventional thinking today is just as entrenched as it was in 2002. This is the conventional thinking that measures experience only by the years you've been in Washington, not by your time spent serving in the wider world. This is the conventional thinking that has turned against the war, but not against the habits that got us into the war in the first place -- the outdated assumptions and the refusal to talk openly to the American people.


Oh, and by the way, Obama isn't too shabby with a basketball, either.

10 comments:

esther said...

I also think that Obama is the most appealing candidate in the democratic crowd. The Hillary media juggernaut is impressive to behold. Today's headline above the fold in the Times is how Hillary is winning at fundraising, yet dollar for dollar, Obama has raised more money.

Anonymous said...

With the greatest of respect, but we know Obama was against the war in the past, is against it now and will presumably be against it in the future. Does he have any other strings to his bow that would convince that he's ready to be president? This is a serious question - It may just be because I'm overseas, but I genuinely have heard very little substantive from him on the broad sweep of domestic policy (we've already discussed on this blog his tendency to make neophyte errors in areas of foreign policy not related to the war). Call this a request for another post if you like, but would it be possible to have a serious, extended discussion of the case for Obama as president that doesn't mention Iraq once?

And as a Brit, I'm afraid I have to admit that your basketball analogy caught me unawares! But can Hilary Clinton really be described as a "four-year NCAA veteran of smaller stature and questionable judgment who has done nothing but lose"? I thought she was a key member of what most Democrats regard as one of the most (if not the most) successful administrations in recent memory. And yes, I realise you were probably talking about the Republicans there (but even then I have difficulty seeing how "done nothing but lose" applies to Rudy), but he has to get past Hilary first.

Cards on the table time - I'll probably be drummed out of the VRWC for saying this, but the more I see of this campaign the less afraid I am of the prospect of Hilary for president. She seems mature, committed and on top of the issues, it wouldn't be a disaster if she won. I'm afraid I can't say I get the same feeling about Obama.

Random

Jewish Atheist said...

Random:

With the greatest of respect, but we know Obama was against the war in the past, is against it now and will presumably be against it in the future. Does he have any other strings to his bow that would convince that he's ready to be president?

First of all, it's important to recognize that Iraq -- and the war on terror that it's allegedly related to -- is the most important issue in America today. There also isn't a huge difference in domestic policy between him and Hillary.

I think that his charisma combined with a message of "post-partisan" politics is important. I see the potential for a president a super-majority of the people pretty much like, even if they don't always agree with. That would be an enormous improvement.

I believe that he has the rhetorical ability to beat the Republicans at the framing game with regard to economic policy.

He's demonstrated the ability and the willingness to buck his own party when necessary, for example by supporting merit pay for teachers. At an address to the NEA.

Domestically, his policies are similar to Hillary's. Again, Hillary's primary experience on health care, for example, was an experience of failure. I'm sure she learned a lot from it, but it's hard to argue that failing makes her more qualified than someone who hasn't yet had the opportunity to try.

Finally, if the Democratic nominee cannot beat the Republican, all of this talk is irrelevant. Lots of people think Hillary can be beaten -- indeed a lot of Republicans are hoping we nominate her. If Obama is more likely to win, that's a huge plus in his favor, since most of the Republican front-runners would be incomparably worse than either of them.

And as a Brit, I'm afraid I have to admit that your basketball analogy caught me unawares! But can Hilary Clinton really be described as a "four-year NCAA veteran of smaller stature and questionable judgment who has done nothing but lose"?

I'd say it's a pretty good analogy.

I thought she was a key member of what most Democrats regard as one of the most (if not the most) successful administrations in recent memory.

Well, it's hard, because the issue she was most visibly a "key member" of, she crashed and burned on. Bill Clinton has one of the best political minds of his generation, combined with an amazing charisma and ability to project charisma. It's hard to say what Hillary really contributed to.

And yes, I realise you were probably talking about the Republicans there (but even then I have difficulty seeing how "done nothing but lose" applies to Rudy), but he has to get past Hilary first.

No, I was talking about Hillary.

Cards on the table time - I'll probably be drummed out of the VRWC for saying this, but the more I see of this campaign the less afraid I am of the prospect of Hilary for president. She seems mature, committed and on top of the issues, it wouldn't be a disaster if she won. I'm afraid I can't say I get the same feeling about Obama.

I completely agree on Hillary. I believe she'd make a fine president. I just think that we have a unique opportunity to do better here.

Obama is riskier, for sure. I admit that. Maybe I'm being too optimistic about him, I don't know. I'd be lying if I said Hillary hasn't been growing on me lately. Obama's speech that I linked to above is what reminded me of how much better it could be.

Jewish Atheist said...

combined with an amazing charisma and ability to project charisma.

"Project empathy," I meant.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

I don't know what to make of the Hillary juggernaut. If I thought it meant she was electable, I would be reassured by it. But it might just be a case of people hopping on the bandwagon because her victory appears inevitable.

Andrew Sullivan takes a lot of cheap shots at Hillary. But a couple of days ago, he compared a Giuliani/Clinton showdown to Nixon/McGovern:

One of the enduring reasons for cultural polarization in America is that the baby-boomer generation keeps reliving the same, exhausted squabbles they've been fighting since Vietnam. … If you want one more round of boomer conflict, you couldn't do better than a Clinton-Giuliani match-up, could you? The nastiest alums of that period reunited to fight each other into the ground, with almost four decades of grudges to settle. Today, Rudy accused Clinton of being like McGovern. … So it's McGovern and Nixon again. Do I have to remind Democrats who won that battle? And why there's no one the GOP wants more as the Democratic nominee than Hillary?

That argument resonates with me.

Since Random is looking for arguments in Obama's favour, let's underline your point about Obama transcending partisan politics. Obama isn't fighting the same old battles; he has a record of collaboration with Republicans to achieve worthwhile initiatives.

(This is weird: a Canadian debating a Brit about the merits of a U.S. presidential candidate. But let's face it, the whole world has something at stake in this election.)

Jack's Shack said...

I'd say it's a pretty good analogy.

Only if you think that the presidency is comparable to basketball. I vote against that. On the court you can improvise and do all sorts of stuff that has none of the consequences of poor policy.

Experience is a key element. It is too big a job to give to someone who is just learning the ropes.

Scott said...

Speeches like this certainly go far to promote Obama as an anti-war candidate, but at the same time the man seems to have no issue with maintaining his stance on Iran, and the failure to take the option of pre-emptive strike (even nuclear) off the table. And again I like how he stood up to Clinton on the issue of talking to so-called "enemy" regimes, but then he turns around and says he'd bomb Pakistan if they didn't comply with US demands.

I'd probably feel safer with him in the White House than a Clinton or Giulianni, but I wouldn't go so far as to call him an outsider or someone with revolutionary ideas about foreign policy. I'll stick with truly anti-war candidates like Paul, Kucinch, and Gravel.

Jewish Atheist said...

Jack:

Experience is a key element. It is too big a job to give to someone who is just learning the ropes.

Is being, e.g., governor of Arkansas really that much more experience than being a Senator? Did Bush's time as governor of Texas give him any legitimate preparation whatsoever? It's true that Hillary is uniquely experienced, having been married to a president, but her kind of experience is the exception, not the rule.


Scott:

Speeches like this certainly go far to promote Obama as an anti-war candidate, but at the same time the man seems to have no issue with maintaining his stance on Iran, and the failure to take the option of pre-emptive strike (even nuclear) off the table. And again I like how he stood up to Clinton on the issue of talking to so-called "enemy" regimes, but then he turns around and says he'd bomb Pakistan if they didn't comply with US demands.

I like that about him. He's not anti-war out of a knee-jerk reaction like many on the far left. As he said, he's not against all wars, just against stupid ones. I have no problem with surgical missile strikes on Iran or Pakistan -- and certainly no problem with the mere threats of them -- if they are the last resort. The problem with the current crowd is that attacking seems like it's always the first resort.

I can't for the life of me understand the criticism of Obama for his Pakistan remarks. If we could easily get bin Laden there and Musharaff refused to allow us, we shouldn't go for it?? I can see how some on the left would be against that, but it's ridiculous to see those to the right of Obama pretend like that's completely irresponsible while continuing to maintain that the invasion of Iraq was perfectly justified.

Bobbs said...

Well, Obama plays the same faith fiddle. Faith plays every role in his life. Not only does Obama have no experience but he also never accomplished anything of great significance.

BEAJ said...

Looks like Obama isn't after the atheist vote.

Shades of George Bush Sr.