How new is Obama's New Politics?

Many Obama supporters claim that including, accommodating and compromising with the right will create post-partisan harmony. When have Democrats not done that?

Published December 19, 2008 12:35PM (EST)

(updated below)

The disparity is stark between the actual importance of the Inaugural invocation and the anger triggered by Obama's choice of Rick Warren to deliver it.  Obviously, the controversy is a proxy for numerous pre-existing conflicts and agendas that have nothing to do with Rick Warren.  The Obama supporters justifying the choice are defending what they really believe is Obama's new approach to create a new politics.  And those who are angered by the decision are driven mostly by what Marc Ambinder aptly describes as "the gay community['s being] unusually sensitive to getting the shorter angle of presidential triangulation."

I don't want to re-hash those arguments.  Probably the strongest argument I read opposing Obama's choice of Warren is this piece by Michelle Goldberg, which every Obama defender would be well-advised to read.  And probably the strongest pro-Obama defense I've read is this post by John Cole, which those opposed to Warren's selection ought to read.  

Ultimately, these disputes can't really be resolved until Obama is in office.  Only then will we know whether Obama's embrace of every establishment and even right-wing figure he can find is a reflection of what the substance of his governing will be, or whether -- as many of his supporters claim -- it's a master strategy designed to diffuse tension and hostility in order to enable easier enactment of his progressive agenda.  If Obama devotes genuine efforts to repealing DOMA and don't-ask-don't-tell, I doubt anyone will care how many times he hugs Rick Warren -- just as if Obama really closes Guantanamo, withdraws from Iraq and forges a diplomatic peace with Iran, few people will care how much he embraces Joe Lieberman -- though obviously those are very, very large "ifs."  Only time will tell.

But there is one aspect of the worldview of many Obama supporters that I find genuinely difficult to understand.  These supporters insist that by symbolically including and sometimes compromising with even those on the Right with whom he vigorously disagrees, Obama will be able to chip away at the partisan hostilities and resentments, and erode the cultural divisions, that have inflamed and paralyzed our politics.  People on the Right may disagree with him, claim these supporters, but they won't be wallowing in rage, suspicions, and hatred towards him.  Instead, they'll feel respected and accommodated.  They therefore won't be distracted by petty sideshow controversies.  As a result, he'll encounter less reflexive resistance to implementing the key parts of his progressive agenda.   A New Politics will emerge:  one of respectful and civil disagreements, but not consumed by crippling partisan and cultural hatreds.

The one question I always return to when I hear this -- and we've been hearing it a lot to explain the Warren selection -- is this:  in what conceivable sense is this approach "new"?  Even for those who are convinced this will work, isn't this exactly the same thing Democrats have been doing for the last two decades:  namely, accommodating and compromising with the Right in the name of bipartisan harmony and a desire to avoid partisan and cultural conflicts?  This harmonious approach may be many things, but the one thing it seems not to be is "new."

In fact, wasn't this transpartisan mentality exactly the strategic premise that drove the Bill Clinton presidency, exactly what Dick Morris' triangulation tactics were designed to achieve?  Clinton spent the entire decade extending cultural fig leafs to the Right, from V-chips to school uniforms.   Here's how The New York Times explained the 1996 unveiling of his "school uniform" policy:

By supporting measures like the school-uniform option, Mr. Clinton is trying to use the President's bully pulpit in this election year to articulate a moderate Democratic agenda that steps into the area of social issues that have long been the province of Republicans.

Courting evangelicals was a particular priority of Bill Clinton from the start.  Here he and Hillary are, praying with Rev. Billy Graham in 1993:

In 1996, Clinton signed into law the single most pernicious piece of anti-gay federal legislation ever passed -- the Defense of Marriage Act -- with overwhelming Democratic support in the Congress.  Scorning the "Far Left," especially on social issues, was a Clinton favorite.  He is the inventor, after all, of the Sister Souljah technique.  Bill Clinton was the ultimate non-ideological pragmatist.  He was driven by the overriding desire to win over his opponents.

What did all of those post-partisan, cultural outreach efforts generate?  Hatred so undiluted that it led to endless investigations, accusations whose ugliness was boundless, Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, and ultimate impeachment over a sex scandal.  Bill Clinton was anything but a cultural or partisan warrior.  He was the opposite.  And that was what he had to show for it.

Then there were the Democrats of the Bush era.  From 9/11 onward, they were probably the single most cooperative, compliant, and accommodating "opposition party" ever to exist.  There wasn't a partisan or ideological bone in their body.  To the contrary, they were compromise and accommodation finding its purest and most submissive expression.  Their eagerness to accommodate was so severe that, at the end of 2007, it actually led The Washington Post's Dan Froomkin to observe:  "Historians looking back on the Bush presidency may well wonder if Congress actually existed."  

Did any of that dilute the Right's anger and resentments towards Democrats?   Democrats spent 2002 giving George Bush everything he wanted -- including authorization to attack Iraq -- and the Right then promptly attacked them as Saddam-allied, Osama-loving subversives.  In 2004, Democrats got frightened away from nominating an actual combative liberal, because they feared he'd be too divisive and culturally alienating, and replaced him with a mild-mannered, inoffensive war hero, who then had derisive purple band-aids waved at him by the GOP convention throngs, who spent months mocking him as a weak, effete, elitist loser.  In 2007, Congressional Democrats even voted overwhelmingly to formally condemn their own largest grass-roots political group, MoveOn, to placate the Right's anger over a newspaper ad the group had placed.

When have Democrats not been eager to accommodate the Right, to sacrifice their ideological beliefs and partisan goals in pursuit of post-partisan harmony, to jettison the "Left" in order to attract the Mythical, Glorious Center?  When haven't they done exactly that?  Isn't that everything they've been doing for two decades now, what has defined the Party at its core?  In what conceivable way is this new, and why does anyone expect that it will generate different results now?

Ultimately, the reason politics is unavoidably "divisive" is because people have really divergent and irreconcilable views on passion-provoking controversies.  That's what politics is.  It's what it always has been.  At some point, Obama either will or won't repeal DOMA and don't-ask-don't-tell; he either will or won't rescind Bush's anti-abortion regulations and appoint new Supreme Court Justices likely to re-affirm Roe; he either will or won't close Gitmo; he either will or won't withdraw from Iraq; he either will or won't investigate Bush war crimes; he either will or won't deliver on his promises to unions, etc.  People feel very strongly -- and very differently -- about those issues. 

Someone is going to be angered and feel alienated by what decision he makes, by the outcome, and symbolic paeans to inclusion are unlikely to soothe that.  Those who are eager to escape confrontation, divisions, and angry disputes can probably do so only by renouncing any actual political principles, and are probably best advised to avoid politics altogether.  Because of the very nature of politics -- to say nothing of the nature of the contemporary American Right -- politics is highly unlikely to exist without angry, often ugly, conflicts of that sort.

Reasonable arguments can certainly be advanced in defense of the virtues of Obama's post-partisan theory of politics.  But it's simply unreasonable to depict any of it as new.  It's exactly what Democrats have been clinging to, desperately and mostly with futility, for two decades at least.  Trans-partisan harmony comes only when Democrats agree to sacrifice what they claim their beliefs are and to show contempt for the "Left," and even then, the "harmony" is fleeting, insatiably greedy and inch-deep.  It's certainly possible things will be different this time around, but in the absence of actual evidence, it's really hard to understand why so many people have become so intractably convinced that it will be.


UPDATE: Andrew Sullivan says he disagrees that what Obama is doing is the same as what Democrats have been doing for the last two decades:

I think Obama is different. I think the earnestness and sincerity of his campaign, and its generational force, have given us a chance for something new, and I fear that in responding too viscerally to the Warren choice, we may be throwing something very valuable away far too prematurely. . . . But we should also understand Obama's attempt to bridge some gaps in America that the Clintons, with their boomer baggage and Dick Morris cynicism, couldn't and didn't. This is what matters. Do gays and lesbians want to be a part of this - or sit fuming on the sidelines at symbolic slights?

We'll see soon enough, won't we?  I agree that declaring Obama to be a fake and a failure is wildly premature and unwarranted.  He's still not even inaugurated yet. 

But placing one's faith and trust in him and lavishing him with praise that he hasn't earned yet is every bit as irrational, counter-productive and wildly premature.  Obama is entitled to be praised for genuine convictions once he actually demonstrates that he has them, once he can point to results achieved as a result of pursuing them.  That's how all politicians should be judged.  Faith and proof-free trust are not appropriate or healthy for the political realm.

Andrew's argument here is the one that Obama loyalists generally are making:    yes, what Obama is doing might appear to be exactly the same as what Democrats have been doing since forever -- the accommodationist embrace of the Right, the effort to establish centrist credentials by scorning the Left, running away from cultural issues for fear of being depicted as amoral radicals, surrounding oneself with establishment and conservative figures, etc. etc. (Bill Clinton also had a Republican Defense Secretary).  Yes, that may look exactly like what the capitulating Bush-era Democrats and the triangulating Bill "the Third Way!" Clinton spent years and years and years doing.

But this time, say Obama supporters, everything will be different.  This time, it's all being done for different -- for more noble -- purposes.  When Obama does it, it's not merely a cynical political calculation the way it was when Dick Morris in the 1990s and Rahm Emanuel this decade did it.  Instead, in Obama's hands, it's a master strategy for bringing the country together and transforming politics -- all to enable Obama to fulfill his authentically-issued promises and achieve his progressive goals. 

As I said, it's certainly possible that will be true -- like many people, I hope it is -- but I would also hope, particularly in light of how familiar this strategizing seems, that people will demand some actual proof before believing in such lavish claims of transformative and transcendent change.  People are suspicious of this sort of Democratic maneuvering precisely because they've seen it so many times in the past and know how it ends.  It seems perfectly rational not to trust it until there is evidence that warrants that trust.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

MORE FROM Glenn Greenwald

Related Topics ------------------------------------------