Barack Obama and The New Politics

He’s never come up with an explanation about how he would actually transform politics, and his conventional substance is beginning to overshadow his unconventional style.

— David Brooks, Combat and Composure, New York Times, 6th May

I’m on record as saying that Hillary Clinton’s advocacy of a gas-tax holiday, while it wasn’t good policy, didn’t rise to the level of a crime.

Judging from last night’s results, however, it was worse than a crime: it was a mistake.

— Paul Krugman, Talleyrand and the gas tax holiday, New York Times, 7th May

I could have picked dozens of quotes insisting that Obama hasn’t explained how his New Politics works, yet from nowhere he has turned the political scene upside down, eschewed PAC funding, signed up 1.5 million donors, crushed one the most formidable (if incompetent) political machines of recent times and quite conceivably will thrash the Republicans in a landslide in the autumn (it is of course impossible to predict, but as far as any of these things are predictable, this looks on the cards). The junior senator from Illinois, not even on the national political scene when the Iraq war was launched, has got himself into a position where Washington could soon be his feet. Could some people be failing to see the wood for the trees? I think it is interesting that the old media, with some honourable exceptions, is having such difficulty understanding Obama’s core message.

Obama, talking to Russert on Meet the Press, identified the Gas Tax Holiday (GTH) as the clearest issue that separates him from Clinton so it will be interesting to see if we can tease out some more difference between the ‘new’ and ‘old’ politics in this issue, in their handling by one of Hillary Clinton’s most subtle and credible supporters. To Krugman, as with every other economist, the GTH is nothing more than a populist gimmick and while Krugman won’t spell it out others have.

To Krugman, the GTH isn’t a crime because the actual damage that such a policy proposal will do to the economy is trivial—and indeed it is compared to, for example, the multi-trillion dollar Iraq war. To deliver HRC’s superior health-care package she has to get elected, and when McCain proposed his GTH, she had to avoid being outflanked. In the world of the Old Politics, and Krugman is the truly respectable face of the Old Politics, politics is a game, and you need people who can play the game with the right policies. Further, the Old Politics is a zero-sum game: if you try to package your policies to attract broad, bi-partisan support then you are adopting the opposition’s talking points and diluting your proposals. Further, in the Old Politics the press are important and need to be courted and flattered, and when that isn’t done and the candidate starts to get above themselves they get chopped down until they respond.

Let us be clear, that politics, like the law, is a game (see McArdle’s similar discussion of law as a game), and candidates must either get the rules changed or play by them. There may have been some careless in the Obama campaign’s loss of the press but the turning of the press against Obama seemed to coincide closely with the broadcast of the SNL sketch lampooning the press’s treatment of Obama.

While the whole is a game that doesn’t mean that none of the participants have responsibilities, that the process becomes ethics-free within these rules. Certain rules do ensure minimal ethical standards (e.g., reporters don’t lie about what candidates tell them in interviews), such rules being analogous to the law and providing an ethical floor to facilitate the orderly process of the game—they are an extension of the rules, the start of ethics and not their end. (For example, there is no law against lying in general, but an ethical person would be expected to avoid trying to harm people by deceiving them, i.e., lying or being generally deceitful.)

In the eyes of the advocates of the New Politics, all that is left is the game. On a realist analysis, the lobbyists and vested interests are really driving the process, ponying up the cash, endorsements and favourable media coverage needed by the politicians to get elected in return for influence on what they do with power. The idealist analysis says that the party system has become irrationally tribal with both parties long ago corrupting their conservative and liberal ideologies and offering up a divisive dog and pony show to distract the electorate from what is really happening (see the realist analysis). As the ideologies have become more bankrupt and the influence of the lobbyists has increased so the ideological disputes have become more bitter, personal and vacuous. (Adam Curtis’s series of films, The Power of Nightmares, explains the War on Terror in these terms.)

According to the New Politics advocates the country and humanity is facing such overwhelming challenges that we cannot afford the divisive games—nobody in wartime imagines that we can afford this kind of carry on.

The biggest challenge facing humanity is the rate at which we are pumping carbon into the atmosphere, and the problems of coping with this will be seriously exacerbated by the end of cheap oil. For this reason the McCain/Clinton GTH was truly symptomatic of the difference between the Old Politics and New politics. The biggest challenge facing us—it certainly led to the Iraq war—is our energy dependency, and whichever way you look at it the only long-term solution is to reduce our oil dependence. Taxes should be being raised not lowered and political leaders should be explaining this not trying to perpetuate the idea that some short-term measures will get us over the hump until prices come down again. Of course the GTH wouldn’t even save the consumer much but further enrich the oil companies by increasing demand for the scarce commodity they control.

McCain and Clinton, by cynically exploiting the most intractable and difficult problem facing us would have fatally compromised their ability to deal with the problem, should they be elected on the platform of delivering cheap gas. In this context it is not at all difficult to see a re-run of the 1993 heath-care reform fiasco unfolding with any tough measures to deal with energy dependence.

The fabulously wealthy and highly-educated McCain and Clinton were showing boundless contempt for the poor, low-information voters they were cynically targeting, and the gambit seems to have rebounded spectacularly on Clinton, squeaking Indiana despite valuable assistance from regressive, Republican right-wingers.

We have seen the Old Politics being played out in the way race has been exploited too. While Bill Clinton claims the race card was being played against him in the response to his comments in the South Carolina primaries, he knew what he was doing when he compared Obama’s victory to Jackson’s earlier victories. He introduced race into the campaign with these comments, and his motivation for doing so was not any progressive agenda, but for partisan advantage, whether or not he anticipated the subsequent racial polarisation that took place. Since that time the exploitation of race has become more flagrant, provoking the Clinton-backing New York Times to complain in exasperation about the ‘disturbing racial undertones’ of her campaign.

In the end, the New Politics and the Old Politics are different ways of viewing the same game that all the candidates are playing, but it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that a great deal of modern politics has become confused and corrupted at a time when we must all lift our game, at least for our children’s sakes. Good politicians want to change the world for the better, and are in this sense altruistically motivated—maybe Barack Obama’s candour makes into a good politician. Either that or he is better at faking it.

Next: Original Sin (postscript)

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