Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Talk/Talk: What Obama Should Do Now

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Every Sunday CUIP's president Jacqueline Salit and strategist and philosopher Fred Newman watch the political talk shows and discuss them. Here are excerpts from their dialogue on Sunday, September 14, 2008 after watching "The Chris Matthews Show" and "This Week with George Stephanopoulos." Due to technical difficulties, the entire Talk Talk is printed below and is not available on at this time.

Salit: Suppose we take a stab at unpackaging a question that everybody was talking about on the talk shows this morning. Is the Obama camp having trouble handling Sarah Palin?

Newman: Sarah Palin is not running for President of the United States, but for vice president. Does her selection have to be "handled?" Yes. It was a historic event. The Republicans put a woman on the ticket. If I were Obama's advisor I would say make the response tedious. Say Congratulations to the Republican Party for being the second major political party to nominate a woman as vice president.

Salit: And ...

Newman: And that's the end of it. It reminds the public that the Democratic Party nominated the first African American and that's a good thing. Now, says Obama, Let's talk about the American people and our policies. Let's talk about John McCain and our two parties. As I've said for a long time, the Democrats win if they can make this into a party election. The Republican Party has been in power for the last eight years and the American people don't like what they've done with it. End of story. You have to reduce Sarah Palin to the insignificance of the vice presidency.

Salit: Alright. So, how close to that did they get?

Newman: Oh, I don't know what the measure is. It's hard to say. That's going to be decided by what happens in the next few weeks.

Salit: When Chris Matthews asked the Matthews Meter question, "Who won the week - Obama or McCain?" they said McCain, 11-1. I would have answered "Obama." And the reason I would have answered Obama is that, in large measure, all you could do this week was let the Palin thing play out. It was going to be the headliner no matter what. It's the week after the Republican Convention, and she is a woman and she is a new face. Sometimes you just have to let the other side make their play.

Newman: I think who won the week was Palin.

Salit: OK. How did you react to the Charlie Gibson interview with Palin?

Newman: As an interview. It was just another interview of a newcomer onto the national stage.

Salit: On "The Chris Matthews Show" it was reported, not a big revelation here, that numbers of people in the Democratic Party, meaning within the political class in the Democratic Party ...

Newman: Yes...

Salit: ...are concerned that Obama has "lost some of his fire." They say he had his voice when he was running against the Clintons. He had a passion. He was on message. He was sharp. He had a drive that matched the moment. Now, having won that, having beaten the Clintons, having gotten the nomination, and now being up against McCain, he doesn't seem to have that same passion or that precision of message. Is that a fair characterization? Or is it just the anxieties of the Democrats as we move into the final seven weeks of the campaign for the presidency?

Newman: I'd approach this as a psychotherapist for a moment. Who are you ultimately going to be more passionately fired up in opposition to - if you're in opposition at all? Your family? Your mother who raised you? Or someone you've been dating for a week and a half?

Salit: Your family.

Newman: Of course. And, it's a good thing that he's more passionate in his opposition to the Democratic Party. The corruption that you have to defeat first has to be the corruption of your own party. That's what really shows some courage. Running against Clinton was enormously courageous.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: Running against McCain inspires less passion. McCain isn't Bush. He's just an extension of Bush.

Salit: Right.

Newman: Palin isn't on her own. She's just an extension of McCain.

Salit: Right.

Newman: So, there's going to be a difference, not only in the degree of passion, but in the kind of passion. Real courage was required in taking on the Clintons and the entire Democratic machine. Obama passed that test. It's relatively easy to criticize the Republican Party, as even McCain is trying to project. The whole of the American people are against the Republican machine. Now, have McCain and Palin gone up against the Republican Party? No. In fact, McCain has totally tailored his positions, totally remade himself to be more of a regular Republican.

Salit: That's the 2008 John McCain.

Newman: That's where he's caved. That's what he's caved on. In 2000, he ran against Bush and said I'm not a regular Republican. He lost that fight. Now, he's a regular Republican, with an occasional maverick sound bite. And for all of her outsider gloss, Palin is following his lead. She is a regular Republican, too.

Salit: That's not what you'd call a profile in courage.

Newman: No, that's a profile, somewhere between changing your mind and rank opportunism.

Salit: OK.

Newman: If that were properly presented, Obama would diminish McCain's maverick appeal. Now, the reason Obama's hesitant to take that on, of course, is he doesn't want to offend the regular Democrats who make up a portion of his base.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: But, I still think there's a way of doing that.

Salit: Break it down for me.

Newman: There's a way of saying this which glorifies the Democrats. Obama says, Look, our party knew that we had to go through a very difficult but clarifying process if we were going to be prepared to take on the presidency. We did that. It was very difficult. And I know some people felt their toes were stepped on. But we took that on and thanks to the independents who backed us, and thanks to our ranks, and thanks the younger generation, we cleaned up our house.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: And we will finish that job. The Republicans never cleaned house. They're not willing to step out and say, in general, we've done a disastrous job, although it's apparent that they have done a disastrous job. The American people know that. So, if you want to consider who has genuinely taken on their party, look at that. That's my record, says Barack. I led the way in that. John McCain tried to take on his own party in 2000 and he failed. I tried in 2008 and I succeeded.

Salit: I think it works. And my prediction is that McCain's going to try to make that a topic in the first debate coming up in two weeks.

Newman: How?

Salit: Because his only hope of winning is to claim the mantle of the insurgent. That's why his convention speech was 'I've stood up to the Republican Party. The Republican Party lost the trust of the American people. I've stood up to the anti-change forces.'

Newman: Well, if I were Obama, I'd say John, that's what you did in 2000 and you got beaten. Now you've remade yourself. You're a regular Republican who supports the policies of George W. Bush. You didn't change your party, your party changed you. I changed my party. I succeeded where you failed. And that's why I'm more qualified to be president. Because the American people want change. And I have a record of change.

Salit: Here's how I would characterize the debate within the Democratic Party about how to handle this very dynamic. I think there is a strong constituency inside the Democratic Party for Obama to simply hammer at what you might call "the issues." John McCain is tied to George Bush. George Bush ran the war. George Bush ran the economy into the ground. Ordinary Americans are suffering for lack of health care, for lack of jobs, from poor education, from a lack of affordable housing, and so forth. We're not competitive in the world. The Democratic Party is going to change that. In effect, Fred, I would say, their argument is to skip over the point that you're making here about Obama having taken on his party, taken on the establishment, taken a risk and gone through that process, and having the party come together around that. This other strategy that I'm describing, the traditional Democratic strategy, is what the Democrats go to, and what they've gone to. It was the Kerry strategy. It was the Gore strategy. You go to the American people on the basis of what's in their economic interests and what's in their social policy interests and you draw those distinctions and that's how you win the election. There's only one problem. They lost both of those elections with that strategy.

Newman: But the American people have already spoken on the issues. They don't like the way things are being run, they don't like the foreign policy, they don't like the domestic policy, they don't like the educational policy.

Salit: Right.

Newman: They don't like the current healthcare policy. The American people have spoken on that. So who do they think they're talking to?

Salit: Well, they're talking to the "undecideds."

Newman: The undecideds, though, as I understand it, are undecided because they aren't yet clear on who is the best person to do something about the things that they're concerned about.

Salit: Not on the question about what needs to be done.

Newman: Yes.

Salit: OK. So the question is who is the best person to do it. The Democrats' argument is the person who's the best person is the one who has the right policies. That's a different way to approach the issue than what you're describing. I feel close to what you're saying, but that's how the traditional Democrats package it. That's their argument. The way you sell the person is you sell the policies. Meanwhile, at the moment, what the Republicans are doing is selling the person. They're not selling the policies. They can't. The policies are a disaster. Just pick up a newspaper. Still, there is close to half the country, in spite of the failed policies of the Bush administration, who consider themselves conservatives. And McCain has put together a package that appeals to them. I'm not Bush, so you're not going to get the problems from Bush. But I am a conservative, and so you don't have to fear that I'm going to change things in a way that violates that.

Newman: So, I still don't get it.

Salit: You don't get the old strategic thinking from the Democrats?

Newman: No, because the issue is whose policy is preferred at this point in time. Well, nobody quite knows because the choice is about who to trust on the articulation of what they're going to do.

Salit: Right.

Newman: So, defining policies doesn't make a difference, if I understand that reasoning.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: So, why would the Democrats who, as you correctly point out, have been defeated by George Bush twice - why would they go back to that? I don't understand the reasoning.

Salit: Ultimately their reasoning, the old guard's reasoning, is party-based in the following sense. The Democrats' registration has grown. Their numbers have grown on the ground.

Newman: Right.

Salit: The Obama campaign put together a superb grassroots infrastructure. You couple that with the Democratic Party's machine and they think - this is what I expect their reasoning is - they can just simply pull it off on the ground. I'm not saying that they think they don't have to do stuff and that he doesn't have to articulate stuff in the debates and in their commercials and so forth. But, ultimately, the thing turns on their capacity to put it together on the ground.

Newman: But that's a separate question. You just changed the topic in the middle of the discussion. Because one has to do with what you have to do to get elected and the other has to do with what you have to do to effect change that the American people want. And they're two totally separate questions.

Salit: Yes. But you have to sell to the American people that you can effect a change that the American people want. Presumably, that's the issue that's on the table now.

Newman: Yes.

Salit: OK.

Newman: I think Obama is most effective when he says I have some experience, but I also have a connection to a new wave of Americans, young Americans, Americans who want to see political change. They don't care what party you're in and I have a connection to them. I've worked with them. I'm a community organizer.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: And people say to Obama, how can you prove that? And, he could say I just ran a campaign against the hardcore establishment of one of the two major parties and I won. John McCain ran that kind of campaign eight years ago. And he lost. He lost the Republican primary in 2000 for a reason. It wasn't a popularity contest. He lost because the kind of party the Republicans were looking for was expressed by George Bush, not by John McCain.

Salit: OK.

Newman: Everybody knows that John McCain went to the right wing of his party this time because that was the way to win. I'm not condemning that. But that doesn't produce change.

Salit: Correct.

Newman: It might produce victory but it doesn't produce change. Obama has to make his appeal to the new generation. That's not taking McCain on for his age, because the age that we're talking about is not his. It's the age of the new electorate that's relevant.

Salit: Let me shift gears to Alan Greenspan's comments about the state of the U.S. economy. He says we've never seen the degree of connectedness on a global scale as we have today, and that's why the current level of government intervention into the markets is necessary.

Newman: Yes.

Salit: And, he adds, the very factors of globalization which have been so beneficial and have taken millions of people out of poverty around the world are the same factors that make it the case that there needs to be a market correction. Put in the most positive light, from his standpoint, that's what we're seeing now. Globalization produced huge levels of growth which benefited millions and millions of ordinary people around the world. Now we're seeing a correction and a reorganization going on.

Newman: OK.

Salit: Is that an accurate framing? Is there anything left out, in your view, of that account?

Newman: Well, Greenspan's a very smart man. But is he really saying, Alright children, let me teach you a basic law of physics. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction? Now, what is it he wants to do about it? I didn't hear him say.

Salit: Nor did I. All he says is that the main thing that the American government should do is take whatever steps it needs to take in order to stabilize the price of housing. Once the price of housing is stabilized, and that's what all the intervention is about, then things will settle out and the market will take care of the rest.

Newman: What if that doesn't happen? What if the correction for globalization turns out to be so vast that it undermines the very stability of the world economic system?

Salit: Then it wouldn't be a correction, it would be a destruction.

Newman: I didn't hear him reassuring us with specificity that this whole globalization thing was so well thought through that destruction couldn't possibly happen. And I don't think it was. I think there was a huge amount of money to be made. And, as always, when finance capitalists see huge money to be made, they go ahead and make it - without much thought about what the consequences might be. So, for example, at the risk of oversimplification, people who are saying that it's alright to bail out the finance industry because it's a worldwide system and that's different than bailing out the automotive industry...

Salit: Yes...

Newman: ...I would say there's a sleight of hand in there. It's alright if that represents your going-forward values.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: If you want to make sure the banks and financial system get bolstered on the grounds that that has to do with everybody and the automotive industry doesn't get protected in the same way because that that doesn't involve everybody in the same way...

Salit: Right...

Newman: Well, that seems a little tricky to me, because it depends on who you mean by "everybody" and how you relate to "everybody." It's not that I can't see the sense of the argument. The financial markets do have applicability to everyone, but not everyone in the same way. So, I'd say Greenspan tells less than the whole story. I almost agree with him. But it's less than the whole story.

Salit: A good way to put it. Thanks, Fred.

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