Monday, August 01, 2016

Obama sticks to his central vision (continued)

This is a follow-up to my post last Friday, "Obama sticks to his central vision".  One of the responses I got came from my friend Bob Bell, who explored further some of the issues I touched on in the closing remarks of my post.  I think the issues raised by Bob in his own remarks are important, and what he has to say about them is perceptive and usefully thought-provoking.  So with his permission, I'm sharing his message below.

Here's the last paragraph of my Friday post:
OK, a full assessment would have to take into account some of the disappointments and shortcomings of Obama's actual presidency, and consider whether and to what extent they might have been linked to the ways that Obama tried to implement this orienting vision in practice. Among other things, it's clear that for a while Obama had unrealistic hopes about the prospects for working out constructive compromises with the Congressional Republicans. He underestimated the extent to which they would respond to his presidency with a strategy of unrelenting, indiscriminate, monolithic obstructionism and intensified partisan polarization, and did not foresee the political effectiveness of that strategy in terms of partisan advantage for the Republicans, damage to the country notwithstanding. (That strategy also, by the way, had the unintended side-effect of helping deliver the Republican Party to Trump.) But one can't do everything at once. And those errors and setbacks do not, in my view, undermine the validity and value of Obama's central message.
Bob Bell's response follows.  I've taken the liberty of bolding one set of points that I think are absolutely on-target and deserve special attention.

—Jeff Weintraub

This is a nice and timely message.

I would elaborate on your closing comment. A central problem in Obama’s politics, which will be even worse in another Clinton presidency, is the failure of the Democrats to mount a clear and sustained attack on the incivility of the Republican party. Obama, trying to build a working relationship with Republicans in Congress early in his first term, missed the opportunity to call out the obstructionism that undermined political compromise and frustrated majority rule.

Hillary, who is too flawed a character and too much the maneuvering tactical politician to articulate and stick to a civic vision that Americans can take seriously or even grasp, is running against Trump and his character, since she figures that will enable her to win. She needs to emphasize her opposition to the party that cultivates authoritarian and scorched earth politics and offers only the empty, hopeful, and failed free market fantasies of Paul Ryan and his friends. Only by running against that party, and not just its extraordinary candidate, will she be able to govern, which, surely, is the reason to run for office.

In a rational world, major themes of the Democratic primaries and convention would be (1) that the “brokenness” and “rigging” of the political system is a direct result of a Republican party that has largely abandoned the civil norms that enable American government to function and majorities to work their will and (2) that Democrats need to propose ways to make government work despite the influence of demagogues like Trump and uncivil, irresponsible ideologues like Cruz, who now dominate the opposition party. It is testament to the desperate state of our politics that Democrats have engaged in essentially no realistic discussion of how their party proposes to make government more functional—instead, we get candidates debating the relative merits of different plans (for college, for climate change, for inequality, etc.) and ignoring the reality that neither plan has any chance of being enacted into law.

[JW: To fill in some of the background to this dangerously dysfunctional situation, read this recent piece by Norman Ornstein & Thomas Mann, who correctly diagnosed the underlying problem years ago:  "The Republicans waged a 3-decade war on government. They got Trump.]

One other disillusioned comment. Trump has succeeded via attacks on two cardinal and consensual ideas of the American elite—that free trade produces economic growth and prosperity and that a broad and humane version of U.S. international leadership will help both our country and the world at large. Our elites have been remarkably silent as these bipartisan notions have come under attack and have offered very little rationale for why they hold these views. Countries are in bad trouble when their elites stop understanding or believing in the system for which they are responsible and from which they benefit (the Soviet Union is a case in point). We are in bad trouble.

—Robert Bell