The Obama campaign's past two weeks

It matters what Obama says and what tactics he uses in his attempt to win the election.

Published July 1, 2008 12:24PM (EDT)

(Updated below - Update II - Update III - Update IV - Update V - Update VI)

Keith Olbermann delivered a "Special Comment" last night on Obama's support for the FISA bill and, to his credit, attempted to address many of the criticisms that had been voiced regarding his prior comments. He seemed to abandon the idea that Obama harbors a Secret Plan to prosecute telecoms and instead urged him to adopt and then announce such a plan. Olbermann also assailed "the idea of handing a get-out-of-jail-free card to corporations who had approached definitional fascism by breaking the law in concert with the Bush Administration," and pointed out -- correctly -- that Obama will be attacked by the GOP as Soft on Terrorism no matter what he does. In general, Olbermann's commentary about Obama's FISA position was much more critical, in both senses of the word.

Still, there are numerous, glaring flaws with the fantasy that Obama will criminally prosecute telecoms, which I've already described in detail and will only summarize here. That the FISA bill only immunizes telecoms from civil but not criminal liability isn't some mystical discovery generated by John Dean's Talmudic examination of the fine print, but rather, is something that was crystal clear and known to everyone for a long time. Indeed, from the start, the Bush administration only proposed, and telecoms only sought, immunity from civil -- not criminal -- liability. That's because criminal prosecution would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, and beyond that, Bush could and likely will simply pardon telecoms from prosecution before he leaves office (nobody who has watched the last seven years would believe that Bush would be deterred because pardons are deemed by courts to be technical admissions of some level of guilt, and those asserting that pardons can't be issued until there are charges brought simply don't know what they're talking about).

More importantly, the FISA bill is dangerous and destructive for reasons having nothing to do with the telecom immunity provisions (i.e., the warrantless eavesdropping powers it vests in the President). Even if Obama did follow Olbermann's plan -- and is there anyone, anywhere, who believes there's any chance he will? -- it still wouldn't remotely justify Obama's support for this heinous bill.

Those points aren't worth re-hashing but an underlying point is worth emphasizing. Debates and disagreements among Obama supporters over the direction of his campaign -- even vehement disagreements -- aren't "slapdowns" or "feuds" or "pissing matches" or "circular firing squads" or counter-productive "distractions." As Olbermann's mildly responsive reaction to the criticisms that were made demonstrates, such disagreements are actually quite vital.

The choices Obama makes about how he campaigns and the positions he takes are extremely consequential in how political issues in this country are perceived. In the last two weeks alone, Obama has done the following:

*intervened in a Democratic Congressional primary to support one of the worst Bush-enabling Blue Dogs over a credible, progressive challenger;

* announced his support for Bush's FISA bill, reversing himself completely on this issue;

* sided with the Scalia/Thomas faction in two highly charged Supreme Court decisions;

* repudiated Wesley Clark and embraced the patently false media narrative that Clark had "dishonored McCain's service" (and for the best commentary I've seen, by far, on the Clark matter, see this appropriately indignant piece by Iraq veteran Brandon Friedman);

* condemned for its newspaper advertisement criticizing Gen. Petraeus;

* defended his own patriotism by impugning the patriotism of others, specifically those in what he described as the "the so-called counter-culture of the Sixties" for "attacking the symbols, and in extreme cases, the very idea, of America itself" and -- echoing Jeanne Kirkpatrick's 1984 RNC speech -- "blaming America for all that was wrong with the world";

* unveiled plans "to expand President Bush's program steering federal social service dollars to religious groups and -- in a move sure to cause controversy . . . letting religious charities that receive federal funding consider religion in employment decisions," a move that could "invite a storm of protest from those who view such faith requirements as discrimination" -- something not even the Bush faith programs allowed.

That's quite a two weeks. One of the primary reasons that blogs emerged over the last seven years was as a reaction to, an attempt to battle against, exactly this narrative which the media propagated and Democratic institutions embraced -- that it is the duty of every Democrat to repudiate and attack their own base; that the truly pernicious elements are on the "Far Left", whose values must be rejected, while the Far Right is entitled to profound respect and accommodation; that "Strength" in National Security is determined by agreement with GOP policies, which is where "the Center" is found; that Seriousness is demonstrated by contempt for the liberal masses; that every Democrat must apologize for any statement over which Republicans feign offense.

Plenty of Beltway institutions already existed for the purpose of cheering on any and all Democrats no matter what they do. If that's all that blogs are supposed to do, then there is no need for them. From the beginning, blogs have been devoted to opposing Democratic complicity and capitulation -- to protesting the lack of Democratic responsiveness to their supporters -- every bit as much as opposing GOP corruption and media malfeasance. That role is at least as important as the others.

A presidential election is a unique time when Americans are engaged in a discussion over our collective political values (at least more engaged than any other time). Why would anyone watch the Obama campaign use this opportunity to perpetuate and reinforce this narrative, and watch Obama embrace polices that are the precise antithesis of the values he espoused in the past, and not criticize or object to that? Criticisms of that sort aren't unhealthy or counter-productive. They're the opposite. Of course one ought to object if a political candidate -- even Barack Obama -- is advocating policies that trample on one's core political values or promulgating toxic narratives. That's particularly true since his doing so isn't necessary to win; it's actually more likely to have the opposite effect.

There is no question, at least to me, that having Obama beat McCain is vitally important. But so, too, is the way that victory is achieved and what Obama advocates and espouses along the way. Feeding distortions against someone like Wesley Clark in order to please Joe Klein and his fact-free media friends, or legalizing warrantless eavesdropping and protecting joint Bush/telecom lawbreaking, or basing his campaign on demonizing and 1960s anti-war hippies, is quite harmful in many long-lasting ways. Electing Barack Obama is a very important political priority but it isn't the only one there is, and his election is less likely, not more likely, the more homage he pays to these these tired, status-quo-perpetuating Beltway pieties.

* * * *

Ari Melber writes here about the rapidly growing group of Obama supporters organizing to urge him to vote against the FISA bill. Details on how to join that effort are here.

UPDATE: Atrios and this commenter both say that the AP report quoted above regarding Obama's plan to allow faith-based groups to discriminate is mistaken. It's true that Obama's program would prohibit the use of religion for hiring purposes with regard to programs funded by the Government -- the topic of prior controversies -- but it would allow religious entities that receive federal funding to use religion as a factor in hiring practices with regard to non-government-funded programs.

In other words, Obama's plan allows religious organizations which discriminate to receive federal funds. Whether that distinction is important is something everyone can decide for themselves, but the AP article -- while confusingly obscuring this important distinction -- isn't wrong, strictly speaking, when it reports that Obama's plan "let[s] religious charities that receive federal funding consider religion in employment decisions."

UPDATE II: Sen. Russ Feingold:

UPDATE III: To clarify, I don't disagree with every position Obama has taken over the last two weeks (he was very emphatic in support of the Supreme Court's habeas corpus ruling, for instance), nor do I even disagree with all the positions I listed here (I'm against gun control, for instance, and -- like virtually everyone I know -- don't think that troops should be blamed for unjust wars). The point isn't that Obama should be held to some test of ideological purity; it's that he's rushing to embrace every standard Beltway platitude for how a Democratic candidate must loudly repudiate the values of the party's base and can only win by attacking the standard though largely-irrelevant Leftist demons.

With regard to Obama's faith-based program, Steve Benen makes a cogent case here that it is different than Bush's policy, but Digby -- via email -- makes what I think is a more persuasive point, one that underscores the broader point here:

Money is fungible. Catholic charities using "government money" for child care but using "their own" money to discriminate in other areas is an accounting method not a meaningful distinction. Until very recently it was understood that the state financing religious activities and religion financing state activities would be violations of the constitution. Churches were not asked to pay for the upkeep of the state as are other institutions and Churches did charitable work in return. It was a fair and practical division of labor that did not require anyone to fund religious activity with which they did not agree and neither did churches have to fund state activity that offended their beliefs.

This isn't the end of the world, but it's another capitulation to right wing propaganda that says the government can't do anything as well as private organizations. It's an effective political wedge though and I suspect it will be successful in gaining some social conservative converts. If we could jettison gay rights and reproductive freedom we could probably get a lot more. Some of our new allies under the big tent will undoubtedly be working with their new political friends to make that happen.

Other than FISA, there isn't a single position Obama has taken that, standing alone, is so bothersome. It's the general approach he's taking to how he thinks he's going to win the election -- by repudiating key factions that supported him and reversing himself in both tone and substance on vital issues, all in order to comport with the prevailing Beltway orthodoxy over how Democrats must prove that they are Serious and "centrist." The pattern seems to be to push liberals as far away as possible (MoveOn, Wesley Clark, the ACLU) while emphasizing all the similarities he shares with those on the Right. That approach is what the political establishment demands and, at least right now, Obama seems eager to comply. Meanwhile, John McCain flew to the mountaintop home of Billy and Franklin Graham yesterday in order to move closer to the Far Right base of his party.

UPDATE IV: For those who grab every criticism of Obama and leap to the opposite "no-difference-between-him-and-McCain" extreme: Obama -- in addition to supporting the Boumediene/habeas decision which McCain called "one of the worst decisions in the history of this country" -- announced this week that he opposes the Constitutional amendment in California to ban gay marriage (which McCain supports). Those differences matter, as no less an establishment critic than Noam Chomsky -- no Democratic Party booster he -- frequently points out:

In an interview published in The Guardian last weekend, Noam Chomsky added his voice to those advocating that Senator John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) defeat Bush.

Noting that Kerry and Bush share much in common in representing two factions of the business party, Chomsky said that differences do exist: "And in this system of immense power, small differences can translate into large outcomes."

The ways in which Obama is superior to the Bush-following McCain are both numerous and substantial (unless you're excited to have Joe Lieberman and Bill Kristol running U.S. foreign policy and Ted Olson appointing more executive-power-worshiping, privacy-eroding Justices to the Supreme Court -- and if that's not enough, see this), and that's true no matter how many justifiable criticisms are voiced towards Obama. What Obama has done over the last two weeks will drain the enthusiasm away from many of his most intense supporters (as it has even with the intensely pro-Obama Markos Moulitsas), but that isn't the same -- not even close to the same -- as deciding that it's irrelevant if he wins.

UPDATE V: Anyone who thinks the Wes Clark matter was well-handled by Obama -- embracing the media/right-wing distortions of Clark's comments rather than rejecting them -- should watch and read this.

UPDATE VI: Last week, I was on panel discussion on Warren Olney's To the Point Show regarding the Obama campaign -- along with The New Yorker's Dorothy Wickenden, The New York Observer's Steve Kornacki and Bush/Cheney '04 Chief strategist and current ABC News correspondent Matthew Dowd. That discussion can be heard here. The discussion starts at around 7:00 and my portion begins at roughly 26:00.

By Glenn Greenwald

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