William Galston of the Brookings Institution said something interesting the other day, which is a common event. He told New York magazine’s John Heilemann that the reason even many Democrats who admire Barack Obama think the fresh winner of the Iowa caucuses has gone stale is that he has “tried to be post-partisan on the cheap, through bring-us-together rhetoric and leadership style as opposed to substance.” Heilemann agreed, lamenting “Obama’s rebranding as a standard-issue liberal,” whose every policy proposal could “have been put forward happily by Nancy Pelosi or Ted Kennedy.”
Sen. Obama has come a remarkably long way towards the White House by speaking, nebulously, about replacing rancorous partisanship with “a different kind of politics.” As Galston points out, though, inclusive processes and earnest, respectful attitudes can improve the tone of our political life, but will not resolve deep differences over substantive policies. In a review of The Audacity of Hope, written before it was clear Obama would even run for president in 2008, Michael Tomasky detected signs that this Democrat “is not a political warrior by temperament,” but rather, “a believer in civic virtue, and in the possibility of good outcomes negotiated in good faith.”
It’s a lovely vision, but reality is going have other ideas. Mickey Kaus has argued that “half-a-loaf” political problems, ones that can be solved by both sides giving up things they don’t care about very much, are neither numerous nor significant – most of the easily solved problems have already been solved. “The problems we’re left with,” according to Kaus, “are problems where one side or the other is willing to fight to the death to protect a core demand that must be denied to achieve a solution.”
Post-partisanship that wasn’t on the cheap would acknowledge the policy questions that are intrinsically difficult, and the political problems that are daunting because of deeply held, irreconcilable views. Real leadership, in these circumstances, will often require telling one side, and perhaps both, that their core demands are going to have to be tossed overboard. The journalist Matt Miller, for example, floated the idea in 1999 of an ideologically eclectic rescue for floundering urban school systems: a big increase in federal aid, but also a much bigger role for vouchers. Several conservatives, including Milton Friedman, Sen. Lamar Alexander and school-choice activist Clint Bolick expressed misgivings but ultimately signed on, as did Kweisi Mfume of the NAACP. Miller next tried the idea out on Bob Chase, then president of the National Education Association:
Miller: Is there any circumstance under which that would be something that . . .
Miller: . . . you guys could live with? Why?
Miller: Double school spending . . .
Miller: . . . in inner cities?
Miller: Triple it . . .
Miller: . . . but give them a voucher?
Chase: ‘Cause, one, that’s not going to happen. I’m not going to answer a hypothetical [question] when nothing like that is ever possible.
Miller: But teachers use hypotheticals every day.
Chase: Not in arguments like this we don’t. . . . It’s pure and simply not going to happen. I’m not even going to use the intellectual processes to see if in fact that could work or not work, because it’s not going to happen. That’s a fact.
Chase’s position has an impregnable circularity: Vouchers aren’t going to happen because teachers unions aren’t going to talk about them, so there’s no point in the unions talking about them since they’re not going to happen.
The Obama 1.0 who won the Iowa caucuses came across as temperamentally and politically languid. In a New Yorker profile, “The Conciliator,” one Obama supporter described hearing from many conservative friends who identified Obama as “the one Democrat I could support, not because he agrees with me, because he doesn’t, but because I at least think he’ll take my point of view into account.” This very quality antagonized the legions of Democrats who, like Bob Chase, are in no mood for conciliation. Paul Krugman, for example, called Obama “naïve” for refusing to become a polarizing figure: “Anyone who thinks that the next president can achieve real change without bitter confrontation is living in a fantasy world.”
Four months after Iowa, it’s clear that Obama is not going to be able to capture the White House merely by insisting on the importance of better table manners. If Obama wants to do the heavy lifting real post-partisanship requires, he has the perfect foil in Hillary Clinton, whose campaign has become an increasingly desperate and shameless panderthon. She stridently tells every Democratic constituency that none of their demands are unaffordable or outlandish, all of their core demands are inviolable, and only greedy, mean-spirited Republicans stand between them and their wishes.
Rather than try to keep up with this demagoguery, Obama should emphasize issues that will make some people in his party angry. He’s off to a good start in opposing the inane idea, advanced by both Hillary Clinton and John McCain, of a gas tax “holiday” for the summer. Perhaps he’ll go on from there to embrace Matt Miller’s compromise on public education, or to advocate supplanting race-based with class-based affirmative action. The political support he would lose would be offset by the respect he would gain for demonstrating that post-partisan credibility will have to be earned.