April 06, 2008

Bad Meme, Bad!

Ok, I was not an early Obama supporter. I was an Edwards guy first and was concerned that Obama was a really good speaker with not a lot of substantial policies backing up the oratory. This was, of course, a year ago. Then the primaries began and bit by bit, whether through the necessity of having to answer a grilling by the press or just because he was releasing plans as they came together in his policy shop, Obama filled out his policy initiatives. After Edwards' ship sank I spent a while not supporting either Obama or Clinton because I believed, and still believe, that they're both similarly liberal and would both make fine executives. Then I got moved by a couple Obama speeches and Clinton's campaign started doing some really indefensible things, like advocating that she get delegates from Michigan where Obama wasn't even on the ballot and continuing to employ the odious Mark Penn, and I became an Obama supporter. I still think Clinton herself would be a fine executive, but I won't support the campaign that she's running. Anyway, it was endlessly annoying to me to hear a Clinton supporter at dinner last night use the old "Obama is all rhetoric" meme. Sadly, this is also something I hear other supporters online and even the Clinton campaign itself argue sometimes. Look, he was a relatively new politician at the start of this process and his policies were admittedly thin, that that's simply no longer true. I think there's plenty of room to disagree with Obama's specific policies, and indeed on some I do, and it's completely legitimate to argue that he won't be able to pass some of his initiatives, but let's have that debate rather than recycling arguments from 2007 which aren't relevant anymore.


Noumena said...

I want to disagree with the concession that Obama's rhetoric was lacking in substance a year ago. If a political speech can be said to have substance only if if contains lots of specific policy proposals, and the sort of arguments with respect to policy proposals that are often called `wonkish', then yes, Obama's speeches were lacking substance.

But this is way too narrow a conception of substance. Consider The Gettysburg Address, arguably the most important and substantial political speech in American history. There are no policy proposals here. By that standard, Lincoln's address is even less substantial than Obama's. What we have, instead, is a brief but profound meditation on the obligations a democratic society has to its soldiers. The substance of the Gettysburgh Address is the nature of and relationship between democracy and war.

Reflecting on a comment by a political philosopher and reading The audacity of hope, I realised that Obama's words are more like Lincoln's than, say, Clinton's. Obama's books and speeches all seem to turn around a single question: How can a society like ours, radically divided and subdivided by race, class, and political ideology, survive? His answer is the national conversation he calls `unity', and articulating it in his speeches amounts to nothing less than articulating a conception of the nature and function of democracy. Once you review his speeches with that idea in mind, it's easy to see that they were quite substantial indeed.

MosBen said...

Well, ok, when I referred to "substance" I meant having firm policy proposals. A year ago Obama hadn't really released a lot of policy proposals, which led me to worry that he gave great speeches but that there wasn't a lot of policy plans behind it. Of course, a year ago was really really early in the campaign so it's not a very serious knock on the guy that he hadn't released his plans yet. Still, Edwards was out there with good policy proposals so I gravitated towards him because though I love a good speech I'm much more interested in policy.

But sure, we can define substance more broadly, but what concerned me was policy proposals.

Drew said...

I have to disagree, MosBen. Though I'm an ardent supporter of Obama as against Clinton and even more so as against McCain, he's still not particularly impressive to me. He's John Kerry, but with a less impressive background and more impressive stage show.

When Obama first rose to national prominence in the wake of his incredible trouncing of Alan Keyes, I was intrigued, and I hoped to see more. When he began his presidential campaign, I assumed that he'd be preferable to Clinton, and hoped that he might even be good enough to shift me away from Edwards. He wasn't.

In fact, it quickly became clear to me that his only advantage over Clinton was that he wasn't Clinton. To me, that's still his only advantage. He's Clinton without the baggage, but that is it.

You're right that he is about as liberal as Clinton, which is to say not remotely. I think, as president, he'd probably be about as good as Clinton, and about as good as the last Clinton, in that he'd make lots of things a bit better, and a couple of things much, much worse. And that's enough for me to support him vigorously in the general election, and being Clinton without the baggage is enough for me to support weakly in the primary.

But I remain as unimpressed with him as I have ever been.

MosBen said...

But I'm not arguing that he's impressive in his policies. What I am saying is that he *has* policies. What I hear all too frequently, particularly from Clinton supporters, is that Obama is "all rhetoric" which is simply not true. He has slightly left leaning proposals and the debate should engage those proposals rather than trying to pass him off as a guy that speaks really well but doesn't offer anything of substance.

Drew said...

Ok, fair enough. Yeah, I'm really puzzled by Clinton supporters who really lay into Obama. They're the same. One of my former co-workers is a huge Clinton fan, and just hates Obama. Really hates him. It just baffles me.