Archive for the ‘Column’ Category

January 14, 2008

COLUMN: The Politics of Dopes

Barack Obama, Empty Suit

Barack Obama’s supporters compare him to John Kennedy, another great orator whose youth and short political resume opened him to complaints that he didn’t have enough experience to be president. But there’s no comparison. JFK served two terms in the House and won two terms in the Senate before asking us not to ask what he could do for us. If Obama wins, he will only have had four years in Congress, next to Kennedy’s fourteen. (Hillary Clinton, running as a grizzled veteran, would have eight.)

Ted Kennedy is a better analogy. At the start of his 1980 Democratic primary challenge to incumbent President Jimmy Carter, Kennedy was riding high in the polls. But when Roger Mudd of CBS News asked him why he wanted to be president, he fumbled. “Kennedy’s problem,” Paul Waldman wrote in The American Prospect in July 2007, “was not that he didn’t have a good reason to run–he had plenty of them.” His problem was the way he thought about that run. He thought about issues, he thought about the weaknesses of the president he was trying to supplant, he thought about the programs he wanted to institute. What he didn’t construct was a story that explained his candidacy to voters and offered a narrative structure for journalists to use when reporting on him.”

Successful presidential contenders, Waldman argues persuasively, answer Mudd’s classic question with a three-part story. First, the candidate “describes the state of the country and its government, clearly defining what is wrong.” Next comes “the place the candidate wants to take us, the better day being promised.” Then he tells us why he’s the person who can get us there.

Waldman is having a good week. Barack Obama, he predicted a full six months ago, had the best three-part campaign narrative of the major contenders. America’s biggest problem, Obama says, is “partisan bickering,” which he traces to the lingering ideological rifts of the 1960s protest era. His biracial heritage gives white voters a chance to prove they’re not racist. As a Gen Xer, he says he’s the guy to move us past the Boomers’ battles.

Of course, Obama’s three-part story ignores important issues that affect real people–jobs, college tuition costs, taxes, healthcare, Iraq. I’m 44, and I’ve never met anyone who thinks there’s “partisanship in Washington.” (Most voters complain that their party isn’t forceful enough.) It’s a lame sales pitch, though it may work.

What Obama has not done is answer the question: Why does he want to be president? The answer–that it would be a cool addition to his resume–is too unappealing to say out loud.

The night of the New Hampshire primary Obama declared (four times!): “There is something happening in America!” What’s happening? “Change,” he said, “is what’s happening in America.” Change to what? Obama didn’t say.

“Yes, we can,” Obama said (11 times). “Yes, we can, to justice and equality. Yes, we can, to opportunity and prosperity. Yes, we can heal this nation. Yes, we can repair this world. Yes, we can.” Great. How?

He cannot say.

All the candidates, except for John Edwards, want to be president because they want to be president. Winning the presidency is their goal. Like Robert Redford at the end of “The Candidate,” they have no idea what they’ll do if they get the gig.

In his memoirs Nixon chief of staff H.R. Haldeman described moving into the White House after the grueling 1968 campaign. Nearly a year passed, grinding thousands of Americans and Vietnamese to death and dismemberment, as the incoming administration learned to use the phones and master the inner workings of the federal bureaucracy. Defeating Hubert Humphrey hadn’t left enough time to develop a coherent domestic or foreign policy. Setting an agenda was done on the fly, as Nixon’s officials responded to events.

Among presidents in the modern political era, only FDR and LBJ entered the Oval Office knowing what they wanted to do. (George W. Bush–or rather Dick Cheney–knew what he/they wanted to do but didn’t deign to tell us.) It’s no accident that they were two of the most effective leaders of the 20th century, or that their legislative agendas remain cherished legacies of American progress.

If I received a call tonight informing me that I needed to come to Washington because I had somehow been selected president, I would be ready to work tomorrow morning at 9 o’clock. I already know who I’d choose as my secretaries of state, defense and other cabinet appointees. Guantánamo would be shut down. The Department of Homeland Security would be abolished. We’d pull out of NAFTA and the WTO. Torture would be banned; habeas corpus restored. I have tax reform ready to go (soak corporations and the rich, companies that outsource U.S. jobs and use offshore tax shelters would be barred from selling goods to U.S. consumers), a detailed education policy (federal control would replace local control and funding of public schools, colleges and universities would be nationalized and made free) and a plan for healthcare (fully socialized). My foreign policy would go into effect at once: immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq, an address to the United Nations apologizing for the wars and the torture and offering reparations, normalizing diplomatic relations with Iran, North Korea and Cuba, and cutting off aid to oppressive dictatorships.

I’m just a writer and cartoonist, but I know exactly what I’d do if I became president. Why doesn’t Barack Obama?

We ought to expect nothing less from the men and women–all professional politicians–who seek the most important office in the country, and on earth.